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Behchokǫ̀
Infrastructure
Yellowknife

Yellowknifers beyond despair after six outages in a day

Last modified: September 11, 2022 at 6:40pm


If the credit card machines at hardware stores had any power right now, Yellowknifers would be buying pitchforks.

By 5:10pm on Sunday, the city’s residents had been plunged into at least six separate power outages in one 24-hour span. In Behchokǫ̀, which is on the same hydro system, residents reported a similar fate.

(Yes, we’re editing the number of outages and the time as we go. It could be a long night.)

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Neither the NWT Power Corporation, which generates power for Yellowknife, nor Northland Utilities, which distributes it, had any firm answers regarding what was happening.

“We are continuing to investigate the cause of the outages,” a power corporation spokesperson wrote in a Facebook comment shortly before 5:30pm. “A fallen tree or branch on the transmission line from Snare Hydro is one of the possible causes into which we are looking but we have yet to confirm whether this is the case.”

The North Slave region was experiencing a windy weekend, leading some residents to speculate that gusts of up to 60 km/h may have downed trees and interfered with supply.

The Snare hydro system provides electricity to both Yellowknife and Behchokǫ̀. The two each exist in their own miniature grid, an island of intermittent electricity ordinarily backstopped by diesel generation that seemed conspicuous by its absence on Sunday. Unlike southern Canada, the North Slave can’t rely on power from anywhere else if hydro and diesel both go down.

On Sunday, an outage beginning shortly after 11:30am lasted for more than an hour, punctuated by the briefest of restorations for some customers at around 12:10pm before resuming.

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Power began returning for some Yellowknife customers at 12:40pm, only to disappear again at 1:05pm, amounting to a fourth separate outage since the opening blackout, which came on Saturday evening.

The fifth came after 4pm and the sixth an hour later, turning what had been a murmur of online grumpiness into a torrent that might have powered the city, if only NTPC could dam it. Dammit.

“Seriously, again?” one resident wrote. Others wept for Sunday muffins and pies that would have been more thoroughly baked had they been left in a cupboard.

“Come on now. My cabbage rolls are on the line here,” another resident tweeted.

Beyond the culinary consequences, anyone with sensitive electronic equipment (or, say, a radio station to operate) would be understandably concerned about the impact of multiple blackouts.

Will Gagnon, who left a climate science role at the NWT’s Department of Infrastructure earlier this year, tweeted: “More than 4 power outages in less than 24h. Maybe it’s time we pressure @NTPC_News to innovate?”

Earlier on Sunday afternoon, the power corporation said “efforts to restore stable power are being hampered by several factors” and an investigation had begun into both the outages and the delayed restoration of power. Of particular interest will be what happened to Yellowknife’s Jackfish diesel power plant, which usually restores power in a matter of minutes when hydro transmission fails.

In a tweet, Northland Utilities said Sunday’s citywide outage was due to a “loss of generation supply” from the power corporation, but did not elaborate.

At least one store, Yellowknife’s Book Cellar, gave up.

By 6:30pm, Yellowknife’s Capitol Theatre had also called it a day, abandoning stop-start film screenings and citing a danger of damage to its equipment.

The loss of power simultaneously in Yellowknife and Behchokǫ̀ could suggest a broader problem with the transmission of power from the Snare hydro network, which supplies both communities, though ordinarily diesel generators are available to swiftly kick in.

A small area of downtown Yellowknife had already been earmarked for a Sunday morning power outage to allow Northland to carry out some work, though the only notification for any businesses in the area appeared to have been a tweet on Thursday.

The outages come as the power corporation seeks to increase power rates in many areas of the territory, including a rate increase in Yellowknife – forecast at around 3.5 percent over two years – that would first affect distributor Northland but would then almost certainly be passed on to Northland’s customers in the city.

On one hand, customers point to service interruptions like the weekend’s outages and ask how price increases can possibly be justified. On the other, the power corporation has long argued that the outages are in part a consequence of ageing infrastructure and a lack of cash to perform urgently needed upgrades and replacements.

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