02/05/2014 08:59 EST | Updated 04/07/2014 05:59 EDT

Utilities at odds over scope of inquiry into power outages in Newfoundland

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Newfoundland's two main power providers are at odds over the proper scope of a Public Utilities Board inquiry into blackouts that left up to 190,000 customers in the dark last month.

Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro generates power and wants a short-term focus on system reliability over the next few winters.

"What we would like to do is look at what caused the issues that we had during the outages," vice-president Rob Henderson said Wednesday. The utility, which came under heavy fire from seething residents, wants to be able to explain what happened and learn from it, he added.

Henderson made the remarks after a Public Utilities Board meeting to allow public input on the potential parameters of its inquiry into what went wrong and whether it could happen again.

But Karen McCarthy of Newfoundland Power, which distributes and sells electricity, says the inquiry should go farther.

"We at Newfoundland Power can't sit back and plan out the systems and look at the reliability of the system without really knowing what to expect well into the future," she said.

A longer term approach also makes sense to ensure investments in aging equipment are wisely spent, McCarthy said.

"So that we can look our customers squarely in the eyes and say: 'Here's the plan. Here's the backup plan should we run into any difficulty in the future.' And, frankly, try to reconstitute the kind of confidence that people always had in our system."

The two utilities work with the independent Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities to forecast hydro loads while striking a balance between maintenance, upgrades and reasonable rates.

Newfoundland Power was among several presenters Wednesday urging the board to assess reliability up to and beyond 2017 when power from the $7.7-billion Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador is expected. Subsea links will transport energy from Labrador to the now isolated power grid in Newfoundland.

A key question is whether the board should examine the province's plan to shut down the island's Holyrood power plant when Muskrat Falls electricity flows. Mothballing the oil-fired site has been a major selling point for the Progressive Conservative government's push for renewable power.

Liberal Opposition Leader Dwight Ball is among several critics who've said the board should assess whether Holyrood might be needed as backup.

David Vardy, a former board chairman, urged the board Wednesday to revisit the reliability of Muskrat Falls transmission lines as planned by Crown corporation Nalcor Energy.

In a joint submission to the board with Ron Penney, a former deputy minister of justice and St. John's city manager, Vardy also says the inquiry should explore any plans to import emergency energy from Nova Scotia should Muskrat Falls power fall short or fail.

Board chairman Andy Wells hinted Wednesday that the inquiry may proceed in phases to allow short and longer term assessments. He said more information on its scope and timeline is expected within two weeks.

Planned rotating outages on the island of Newfoundland started Jan. 2 as electricity demands spiked during a cold snap.

A public call to conserve energy went out that day after Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro notified the board Dec. 31 of "extended capacity issues" involving a generating unit at Holyrood and two gas turbines that were down for maintenance.

Unplanned blackouts affected up to 190,000 customers the weekend of Jan. 4-5 after a transformer fire and a breaker malfunction threw Holyrood offline.

The failures raised questions about load forecasts and maintenance as energy analysts compared them to outages usually seen in developing countries.