Prolonged power outages in Quebec: lack of preparation, according to an expert

MONTREAL — The long blackouts that left many Quebec households without power for several days illustrate Quebec’s lack of preparation for the upcoming energy transition, according to an expert.

The province must improve its infrastructure and its emergency planning, as Quebec society gradually replaces fossil fuels with electricity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, argued the scientific director of the Institute of Trottier energy from Polytechnique Montréal, Normand Mousseau.

The current situation « shows how fragile we remain and how unprepared we are, » he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Mr. Mousseau, who is also a professor of physics at the University of Montreal, added that the impact of the outages will only worsen as Quebec’s electrification increases.

« People used to go in their cars to warm up overnight or for a few hours, but when we all have electric cars, we won’t be able to do that anymore, » he said.

Hydro-Quebec maintained on Tuesday that the vast majority of its customers without electricity since the passage of the storm last Friday would be supplied again before Thursday.

All the same, the state company reported Thursday that around 7:15 a.m., about 8,850 of its subscribers had not yet found power. The hardest hit region remained the Capitale-Nationale, followed by the Laurentians, Mauricie, Côte-Nord and Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Hydro-Quebec, Cendrix Bouchard, explained that about half of the interruptions affected ten customers or less.

“This means that each time we take action, we restore service to fewer customers in recent days. This is why we see the numbers decreasing, but less rapidly than over the last two or three days, ”he said.

Bury the wires

Normand Mousseau believes that the Crown corporation should consider a program to gradually bury its overhead power lines, when it makes sense to do so.

The province should also develop a « real resilience plan » that could include installing powerful batteries in certain areas to maintain some power when there are outages, he said.

A report by Auditor General Guylaine Leclerc released in December found that Hydro-Québec’s service had become less reliable. Ms. Leclerc also noted that the state corporation “is not adequately equipped to face the growing challenge of the aging of its assets”.

The report exposed that the average duration of outages increased by 63% between 2012 and 2021, when major weather events were excluded.

An $800 million plan launched in 2020 to reduce the number of service interruptions has only been partially achieved, according to the auditor general.

Hydro-Quebec CEO Sophie Brochu argued in a press briefing on Monday that it was extreme weather conditions — not network weaknesses — that caused hundreds of thousands of Quebecers to lose power at their peak. of the storm that started in the province on December 23.

“Put on any gear in front of a 120 km/h wind and we would be in exactly the same situation,” she said.

Hydro-Québec has also launched a program to make up for years of backlog in infrastructure maintenance, particularly in the cutting of trees and other plants near the lines.

Loss of trustworthy

Yves St-Laurent lives with his wife and three children in Stoneham-et-Tewkesbury, which is about a 35-minute drive north of Quebec. It first lost power on December 23, before being reconnected two days later. Despite this gift arriving in time for Christmas, another breakdown, this time lasting 36 hours, came to complicate his life.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Mr. St-Laurent claimed to have “completely lost confidence in Hydro-Québec”.

“I have lived here for 12 years. Every time there is a storm and wind, summer or winter, we lose electricity,” he lamented.

For professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at McGill University François Bouffard, the power restoration operations demonstrate a « logistics » problem for Hydro-Québec which, like many sectors of the Quebec economy, is struggling with a shortage of skilled labour.

In the last few days, this problem was likely compounded by the holiday vacation and the fact that other provinces, which would normally have sent workers to help Quebec, were also affected by the storm.

Mr. Bouffard recalled that Quebec has more overhead power lines than other provinces, such as Ontario, and that many transmission lines are in places that are difficult to access.

If you want to be resilient, « you have to bury it, » said Bouffard. However, he acknowledged that burying the lines is expensive and that the cost would be borne primarily by taxpayers and municipalities.


The Auditor General’s report clearly showed that Hydro-Québec had underinvested in the maintenance of its equipment, underlined Mr. Mousseau.

He believes the state corporation used cost as an excuse to resist burying power lines. Hydro-Quebec should take the opportunity to bury the lines during road repairs, he added.

However, the government also has its share of responsibility, says the professor. Quebec does not have comprehensive mitigation and crisis management strategies that would protect citizens during outages.

In addition, the provincial government and municipalities have a duty to better plan land use to reduce urban sprawl and thus ensure that electrical infrastructure is easier to access for teams, he said.

Also, Mr. Mousseau suggests that the Ministry of Public Security could develop a more detailed plan to provide emergency electricity and heating to people.

According to him, it is up to the municipalities, the government and Hydro-Québec to work together and develop a real strategy to ensure that Quebecers are not left in the dark and the cold.

— With information from Marisela Amador

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