NB Power’s Year of Reckoning
2014 has been quite a year for NB Power. Over the past 12 months NB Power and its shareholders and customers have endured 6 major power outages due to storms. Damage and repair costs are estimated to be over $40 Million dollars. Meteorologists, Emergency Measures Organizations and NB Power themselves are warning us that these major storm events will only increase due to climate change.
NB Power just completed a series of public relations seminars where they discussed the increasing threats from these storms, and tried to be proactive in educating the public how to prepare for outages, how NB Power prioritizes its response and repair, and to advise people of the increasing maintenance and tree cutting NB Power will be doing in the future. Tree cutting and maintenance budgets are doubling from $4 million in 2008 to $8.8 million in 2016.
What NB Power did not explain is why they refuse to support the undergrounding of utility lines. This is a proven technique that reduces power outages and is much more reliable and less expensive to maintain. If NB Power had supported undergrounding of utility lines over the past 50 years or so they would not be in the situation they are in.
This question was posed to an NB Power representative at one of the recent PR meetings. He fully acknowledged NB Power does not support underground utility lines but offered no real reason why. One response was that NB Power does not own the wires when they are underground. This answer was simply not accurate as NB Power owns and maintains many underground utility systems in downtown Moncton and Fredericton, for example. Moncton’s Main Street and Fredericton’s Queen Street were undergrounded and streetscaped in the 1980s. Both of these much loved and beautiful streetscapes were created during the National “Main Street” program and no repairs were required during the recent storms.
There are a multitude of other examples where NB Power has undergrounded utility lines due to highway construction and various other municipal developments.
Another question that was not addressed is how does NB Power account for the revenues it generates from the rental of its utility poles to third parties like Rogers and Bell Aliant. While it is completely appropriate for other utilities to pay for space on NB Power’s utility poles, this revenue only offsets a portion of the extraordinary costs related to NB Power’s storm vulnerable network. Under no circumstances is this profitable revenue yet it is unclear how this revenue is applied and whether this has any bearing on NB Power’s policy.
As of this writing, NB Power appears to be one of the only utility company in North America that does not encourage or support the undergrounding of utility lines. In 2014 even Nova Scotia Power undergrounded utility lines on both Morris Street and a portion of Spring Garden Road in Halifax. The Spring Garden Road portion is in front of Halifax’s new award winning spectacular Central Public Library.
See attached link to the new Library.
The following link is a May 30, 2013 pdf report by the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) detailing how NS Power has agreed to new undergrounding initiatives as part of the new HRM By Design Municipal Plan. Note how 2003 Hurricane Juan is still referenced as a key deciding factor in this policy. Storms and above ground utility lines do not mix.
While the City of Halifax is still not the leader in streetscaping and undergrounding of utility lines in Atlantic Canada, Saint John New Brunswick and its wholly owned utility company Saint John Energy maintains that worthy distinction, it has spent significant dollars on various reports and studies that all provide evidence of the superiority of undergrounding utility lines and the accompanying savings and improved reliability. One hopes these investments will not be in vain as Halifax considers joining Saint John in requiring underground utilities in all new developments.
Please see attached links to some of these reports.
The Dillon report of 2010 is the most concise detailing a path forward for Halifax and the implementation of a moratorium on above ground utility lines in new development.
Of the 12 cities polled in the Dillon Report, 11 cities require undergrounded utilities in new developments. Only Fredericton did not! Saint John, of course, did.
(See Dillon, p. 7)
The Marbek report of 2007 makes the key point there is a $10 thousand dollar per lot net benefit when you underground utility lines based on reliability, cost savings and increased property values.
For an American perspective, the following 2009 report details how US utility companies are embracing the undergrounding of utility lines due to improved reliability and overall cost savings.
Based upon the reports just cited, StreetscapeCanada recommends an immediate moratorium on storm vulnerable above ground utility poles and lines in new developments throughout Atlantic Canada. The issue of the additional up-front costs that would be associated with this investment is dealt with on pages 12-20 of the Dillon Report. Again Marbek highlights how this up-front investment more than pays for itself when all costs are considered. There are no additional costs to the electric utility as any up-front costs are paid by developers and home owners. These minor costs are financed through property tax levies or the mortgage and the benefits are increased utility reliability, better home value appreciation and frankly a better quality of life.
Of course a moratorium on above ground utility lines will not help the existing, aging storm vulnerable network presently in place. At least we can stop the problem from getting worse and utility repair crews can concentrate on other areas.
The immediate solution is better maintenance of utility corridors especially the rear-lot corridors that have not been properly trimmed and maintained. The wholesale destruction of trees is certainly not endorsed. Streetscape trees must also be protected as they are the property of the people and the precious heritage of generations who tried to build beautiful cities, towns and villages.
Finally Streetscape Canada endorses a new national Streetscaping program which is basically the planting of trees and the undergrounding of utility lines. Other elements are optional. We streetscaped in the 1970s and 80s as part of the National Main Street Program and it is time to streetscape again!
Streetscaping is a literally shovel-ready, geographically dispersed, skill diverse infrastructure program that can put thousands of Canadians to work. It does not even require additional bureaucracy as it can tie into existing cost shared infrastructure programs.
The benefits are myriad including increased utility reliability, increased property values, increased carbon sequestration, pollution filtering, water retention, purification, shelter, habitat, and reduced urban heat effects, temperatures, energy costs and carbon emissions.
And oh yes, streetscaping will protect, enhance and create an even more beautiful Canada!