ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – A damaged main generator will cause rotating blackouts in Newfoundland if peak winter power demands can’t be managed, says Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.

One of three generating units at the oil-fired Holyrood plant — the island’s key electricity source — shut down in an intense blizzard on Jan. 11. The howling storm dumped 52 centimetres of snow on St. John’s and packed wind gusts of more than 100 kilometres an hour.

Jim Haynes, vice-president of regulated operations, said the company can usually meet power demand in winter with two generating units and other power sources.

But as a precaution, Hydro may ask residential and commercial customers to cut use at peak times, especially on the Avalon Peninsula where the load is highest.

“We would exhaust every opportunity we have to curtail demand,” Haynes said in an interview. “We have lots of energy, it’s just a matter of the size of the engine is reduced a little bit for the time being.”

He said they would look at people moving demand by shifting the time someone has a shower or starts a load of washing, for example.

“It’s an inconvenience to the customer, I recognize that,” he said, adding that customers will get advance notice if such measures are required.

It may be possible to avoid brief outages — expected to last about an hour at a time — if everyone co-operates, he said.

Highest demand is usually on cold, windy days when temperatures drop to -10 C or lower, between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., and between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. from December to March.

Haynes said a team of internal and external experts is investigating the cause of the damage and repairs required to the 170-megawatt generating unit.

“During peak customer demand, we maximize all available generation including hydroelectricity, diesel and gas turbines, and we work closely with Newfoundland Power and other power generators on the island to maximize their generation and obtain their assistance in reducing electricity demand,” he said.

At the height of the recent blizzard, about 75,000 customers across Newfoundland were without power for several hours while some waited more than 30 hours for the lights to come back on.

Electricity is a hot topic of conversation in the province, where the Progressive Conservative government in December approved the $7.7-billion Muskrat Falls hydroelectric megaproject in Labrador.

The joint venture between Crown corporation Nalcor Energy and Nova Scotia private utility Emera (TSX-EMA) would bring power from the lower Churchill River to Newfoundland then Nova Scotia using subsea cables.

Haynes said connecting Newfoundland to mainland power grids would offer other energy options when equipment breaks down.

“When the DC (direct current) line to the Maritimes is built, we would have the opportunity to buy off the markets short-term peaking capacity to avoid this situation from a generator point of view.”

Haynes said the most recent troubles have nothing to do with any lack of transmission capacity between the Avalon and other power sources in central Newfoundland.

“We have lots of transmission capacity from that perspective,” he said.

Requests to reduce electricity use could affect customers across the island but are expected to primarily be felt on the Avalon where the capital St. John’s is located and where power load is the greatest.

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