When the power goes out: outages are becoming more frequent across BC

Data shows the frequency of power outages is rising across BC. Abbotsford has been one of the hardest-hit large communities. See the data for every community in BC.

By Tyler Olsen | January 6, 2022 |5:30 am

The wind is howling. The rain is pelting down, and then everything goes dark. The power has gone out. Again.

Power outages are inevitable. But as BC’s infrastructure ages and the climate changes, the province’s power grid is becoming less reliable, with outages happening more frequently and lasting longer. And Abbotsford has been one of the hardest-hit areas, data obtained and analyzed by The Current shows, with residents experiencing more time without power on more occasions.

The number of outages there has increased significantly, with residents now dealing with around three outages per year. Several recent years have seen the average Abbotsford residents left without power for more than 10 hours in total, a total rarely seen in large cities.

Outages in Chilliwack have been more erratic, the data shows. And the frequency of outages in communities further west, closer to Vancouver, has been more consistently lower than communities in the eastern valley.

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In general, outages and the severe weather that frequently causes them are variable, when examined on a yearly, community-to-community basis. But trends have begun to manifest themselves over time and, especially, on a provincewide bases.

Over the last quarter century, the cumulative duration of power outages endured by BC residents has more than doubled; the average person now spends six hours without electricity each year, compared to three hours at the end of the 1990s. The average duration of each outage has grown from about two hours to three hours, and the frequency of outages has also risen. Outages have risen from about 1.5 per customer per year to about two. That translates to one extra power outage every two years.

The situation in BC is being seen in many parts of North America, according to experts. And much of that is driven by increasingly common episodes of severe weather, according to Werner Antweiler, a UBC professor who has studied outages and the power grid in the United States.

“Over the last 25 years, we can see there’s a distinct uptick in weather-related outages in our electricity data,” Antweiler said.

The data is noisy—meaning that it jumps around. That’s because storm-related outages don’t happen at consistent intervals. But over time, a trend is evident.

The main causes of weather-related outages include storms/severe weather, cold weather/ice storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, and extreme heat and wildfires.

Wind, obviously, is a big one. High winds don’t directly knock down power poles, but they topple trees and branches onto the lines. Most outages occur not because a large transmission line is destroyed or damaged, but in the “last mile,” the less weather-resistant infrastructure between a main line and someone’s home.

BC Hydro says the number of storms it has responded to has more than doubled. In 2014, there were 52 storms that caused outages. Between 2018 and 2020, each year saw an average of 113 such storms.

The problem is not necessarily the number of storms, but how bad the very worst storms of the bunch are. That has been evident in the American data Antwiler has looked at. It is the very worst storms—those that are more damaging than, historically, 99 per cent of weaker weather events—that tend to cut power off to large numbers of people.

“That number has increased over time significantly, and that’s what leading to damage,” Antweiler said.

The laws of physics play a large role in when the wind grows strong enough to knock out your power. The force of the wind does not rise proportionally to the speed. Instead the force of wind can be calculated by taking the cube of the speed: so the speed times the speed times the speed.

That means an 80 km/h wind has eight times the force as a 40 km/h wind; a 90km/h gust has 42% more force than an 80km/h gust. Even moderate increases in wind speeds can translate to considerably stronger, and more damaging, winds.

“We see more of these winter events that are stronger, and eventually equipment is more vulnerable to the repercussions from that wherever it’s exposed.”

The Canadian Electricity Association’s Michael Powell says electricity producers across the country are keenly aware of the challenges of getting power consistently to people. (The CEA is an umbrella organization for companies and public bodies that produce and distribute power.)

The availability of power remains 99.9% across the system. That means that fewer than one in 1,000 people are without power at any one time. But Powell doesn’t gloss over the fact that bad weather is taking its toll.

“In 2018 and 2019, you actually saw 50 million customer hours of interruptions, consecutively,” he said. “That’s an indication that there’s more stuff happening and we’re seeing more extreme weather events.”

Electricity producers can’t directly impact the weather over the short-term. (They can, of course, have a significant long-term impact by increasing the availability and use of non-carbon-based forms of energy like hydroelectric, solar, and wind.) So they are focused on ways to ensure their infrastructure is less vulnerable to storms. Last spring, they published a 106-page guide on how producers can adapt to climate change and extreme weather.

One key for electricity producers is “vegetation management,” a fancy term for cutting trees and tree branches before a storm topples them onto a power line. Nowhere is that more important than in BC.

Continues below

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Across Canada, nearly one-fifth of outages are caused when a tree (or part of a tree) has fallen on a power line. In BC, more trees mean more problems. More than half of all outages are caused by trees, with BC Hydro dealing with three times the number of trees per kilometre of power line than any other North American utility.

Those trees in rural areas also lead to longer delays. It’s quicker and easier to deal with a single outage that affects 5,000 people than 100 outages that each affect 50 people.

The trend held true in the community-level figures obtained by The Current: the more rural the location, the longer it takes for BC Hydro to restore power. In the Fraser Valley, it took considerably more time to restore power in Chilliwack and Abbotsford than in Vancouver and even the Langley area. The average outage in Vancouver lasts about an hour. In Chilliwack, the average outage over the last three years has lasted nearly four hours.

In Abbotsford, the average outage lasted a whopping 12 hours between 2018 and 2020. Those are outage durations most frequently seen in small remote communities, not a city of 150,000 on the edge of Greater Vancouver. It’s unclear why that is the case—BC Hydro refused to make anyone available for an interview—but it could be linked to the unique susceptibility of the city’s rural areas to ice storms and events.

Although they refused to make anyone available for an interview, in a statement, a BC Hydro spokesperson wrote that the utility “spends more than $50 million each year to prevent outages along 74,000 kilometres of overhead lines.”

Powell said technology also plays a role. He noted that an Ontario distributor has designed some systems so that power lines break away when a tree falls on them. That’s both safer—the line is no longer coursing with electricity—and makes it easier to reconnect homes back to the active power grid.

Similarly, entire systems must be designed for a world in which weather poses more of a hazard.

“We just have to build for uncertainty,” he said. “There’s a recognition that assumptions that we would have made 20 years ago are a little different than they used to be, so we have to adjust them and make sure we’re planning for the right scenarios. But we’re doing that work.”

But an indestructible power grid isn’t possible. Trees don’t fall on underground power lines, but those lines are much more expensive and their installation more disruptive to the environment. They are also still susceptible to disruptions to transmission stations, and repairing them when they do get damaged can take longer.

Most prevention work costs money that is eventually borne by the electricity consumer.

“At the end of the day, you’re going to get a bill as a customer, and that is the collection of all the costs that go into things. And so the question has to be: what is the best way of balancing those things? And how can we effectively manage risk and build a system that is safe, secure and reliable that also doesn’t break the bank?”

It’s a question producers are facing. But also one for consumers. How much is a power system with fewer outages really worth to you?

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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