Hydro-Québec must improve the resilience of its electricity distribution network.

In the space of a week, residents of certain regions of Quebec experienced two episodes of snow accompanied by power outages affecting up to 100,000 citizens. Hydro-Québec defends the resilience of its electricity network, but Quebecers are at the same time invited to look towards the generator and stock up on batteries. The threat is no longer limited to these extreme climatic episodes, but rather to a small burst of somewhat heavy snow. Is this normal?

To be absolutely fair, it should be noted that the broadside must be accompanied by temperatures around 0 degrees Celsius. Under these conditions, argues the state company, the snow is 7 to 10 times heavier than the powder associated with a thermometer of -10 degrees Celsius. The trees bend under the weight of the snow. Hydro-Québec’s overhead wires are at risk of attack by vegetation.

Despite the indisputable nature of these weather factors, we cannot deny that Quebec’s hydroelectric network is now in a position of extreme vulnerability due to its aging fleet, and who is paying the price? The citizens.

No, we are not stupid. During their recent visit to a parliamentary committee, the leaders of Hydro-Québec confirmed what we had all anticipated: the year 2023 is among the worst in the last 15 years in terms of power outages, around 40 % of them being caused by contact between vegetation and the distribution network. With humility, the CEO of Hydro-Québec, Michael Sabia, painted parliamentarians a gloomy picture of the reliability of his network. “Hydro-Québec is above all a service company. However, cards on the table, right now, our level of service is simply not up to par,” said Mr. Sabia.

Customers are dissatisfied. Not only are they now experiencing power cuts due to weather conditions that cannot be considered extreme, but the restoration of power takes a long time, not to mention the fact that new connections can sometimes take more than a year, a real aberration.

Hydro-Québec therefore makes amends and undertakes to correct the situation. To the elected representatives of the National Assembly who came to hear them, the leaders of the state company promised to “rebuild [leurs] services,” making network reliability the number one priority. They are committed to correcting the trend and reducing the number of breakdowns by 35% within 7 to 10 years. It’s a colossal reconstruction undertaking and a bit long. We will now talk about Hydro’s resilience alongside the patience of citizens.

If we believe a performance report carried out by the Auditor General just a year ago, it is a real leap of faith that we will have to take to take the word of commitment of Mr. Sabia and his team. In an audit severely highlighting the deterioration in the reliability of Hydro-Québec’s distribution network, the auditor assessed that equipment failures constituted a significant cause of outages, the average duration of which increased by 63% from 2012. to 2021, which places us outside North American standards. However, we may be concerned to learn that in 2020, Hydro had implemented a plan to reduce outages whose results fell well short of expectations, with an implementation deadline not respected. Hydro-Québec leaders assure that they have everything in hand to respond satisfactorily to the Auditor General’s complaints, but we can suspect that the resilience of citizens will be severely tested on the road to recovery.

Some 95% of Quebecers are dependent on Hydro-Québec for electricity. When a breakdown occurs, all that remains is to activate the resourcefulness system, be patient and hope for a prompt repair. The state company must prioritize vegetation control, by increasing pruning and tree cutting actions. It can also continue deforestation actions around major installations. It is committed to replacing obsolete posts with posts made of composite materials, which are more robust than those made of wood. It will also use remote-controlled equipment, which can be operated remotely.

Burying wires (often seen as a panacea, because, at first glance, it seems to resolve all overhead issues) is one of the solutions to be implemented here and there, but it is not realistic to extend it to entire network. Not only is its cost prohibitive – $100 billion to bury the 120,000 km of wires, Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon had already calculated – but the repair process in the event of a breakage is complex and long.

The resilience of Quebec’s hydroelectricity network should not be a secondary aspect to which attention should be paid, when there is any left, alongside the mega power plant projects that Hydro-Québec intends to build by 2035. Quebecers are recognized for their resilience and patience, but we should not push the problem of breakdown too far.

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