tree on powerline

Keeping the grid up on Cortes Island

Trying to keep the grid up has been very challenging these past three weeks. BC Hydro crews were constantly on call throughout the region, since Christmas Eve, repairing power outages caused by falling trees and snow encrusted power lines. Sub-zero temperatures meant skyrocketing heating bills. When local resident John Sprungman recently asked why his lights were flickering, a BC Hydro repair technician informed him that Cortes Island is trying to draw more power than the infrastructure on Cortes can handle. BC set a new record for peak electricity demand between 5 and 6 PM on December 27th, 2021: 10,902 megawatts.

Screenshot of Karla Louwers, BC Hydro Media Relations

“Whenever we’re responding to troubling snow, it tends to be a bit of a slower response. The roads are not easy to travel on. It takes longer to get to the location and it’s often a prolonged event. Our crews really started on Christmas Eve on the 24th and it wasn’t until Sunday [January 9th] that the Campbell River District crews had all that trouble cleared up,” said Karla Louwers, from BC Hydro Media Relations. “The good news is we can handle it.”

“Our system is not at capacity from a provincial perspective. We actually have electricity to spare, and anticipate that will be the situation for the next number of years. We can meet that demand and locally as well. The feeder that provides electrical service to Cortes Island isn’t at capacity. So it does allow us to meet the demands that are put on the system.” 

She explained that Cortes Island obtains its electricity from an undersea cable that crosses over to Sarah Point, on the Malaspina Peninsula. From there the lines run about 35 kilometres to a substation in Powell River.

Usually when Cortes Island power is restored during the night, the problem was in that Mainland segment of the line. A crew from Powell River made the repair.

BC Hydro crew working on Cortes Island during the recent power outage – Courtesy BC Hydro

The Campbell River office responds to the outages on Cortes Island. Crews generally arrive in the morning. When the weather permits, they take the ferry – but have used planes, helicopters or a crew boat. BC Hydro has a facility on Cortes island that houses two vehicles, a small bucket truck, as well as an SUV and some equipment.

“Recently we did overnight on Cortes so that we could make the most of the crew’s time that we are there,” said Louwers.

Crews are limited to work a 16 hour shift, after which they need to have eight hours of break time. 

“We’ve stayed at lots of different places on Cortes island: motels, bed and breakfasts. One of the things that crews really liked to have is a warm bed to lay their head down on. Sometimes that’s a problem. When the power’s out on the entire islands, we would like to acquire a place that has an alternate energy supply, a generator or an alternate heat source. In regards to food, the crews like to head off on their day with a warm breakfast. Sometimes we’re really limited in regards to our ability to stay on the island because some of those resources aren’t available,” said Louwers.

She asks that anyone who can help provide food or housing email her at karla.louwers@bchydro.com

“I can put them in contact with the Campbell River line manager, so that we make those connections to make it easier for our crews to stay over on Cortes when they need to.” 

BC Hydro crew working at night on Cortes – courtesy BC Hydro

Cortes Currents had a number of questions about the island’s capacity. Are we still using the same lines that went in during the early 1970s? What about the increased usage of electrical devices since then? 

Louwers said about 10% of our energy bill is from electronics, the biggest component is electrical heating and water heating. 

Commercial and industrial power usage is greater than that from residences. 

“Depending on what the activity is, larger equipment or larger machines are often the really big draw.”

She did not know if Cortes Island’s lines have been replaced since they were installed, but was aware there was maintenance work on the submarine cables between 2011 and 2013. 

BC Hydro recently installed automatic switches, called ‘reclosers,’ on Cortes Island. This makes it possible to re-energize lines remotely. When a branch falls on the line, for example, it causes a fault that knocks out power, but then it drops to the ground and there is no longer a fault on the power line. Crews used to travel from the Campbell River office to Cortes Island and, when they didn’t find anything wrong, would simply re-energize the line. The reclosers are set up to automatically try to re-energize the system. 

Powerlines on Cortes Island – Roy L Hales photo

“You may see little blips in your system when reclosers are at work. The lights flick off for just a few seconds before they go back on,” explained Louwers. “It protects customers upstream of the faults as well. So there’s two ways that they impact the reliability. It’ll isolate the outage area, or it’ll try to restore it in the event that a tree branch (or lightening) causes an outage on the line.” 

Louwers said BC Hydro is aware of the trouble calls for customers between Powell River and Bliss Landing, as well as Cortes Island, between Christmas and the beginning of 2022.

“Our designer and local line manager are investigating some improvements that we can make to remedy that. It’s likely not a large project.  Three ‘phases’ serve Cortes island. Customers on one of those phases that we’re experiencing lower than expected voltage. It could be a simple adjustment at the substation, or it could also be the addition of equipment between the substation and Cortes island that would help regulate that voltage.”

She added that most power outages in BC are caused by falling branches or trees.

During extreme weather events, like the recent cold snap, even  healthy trees fail. 

“The good news is that our vegetation crews have an extensive hazard removal project starting on both Quadra and Cortes Islands in April,” said Louwers. 

Contractors have already made an inventory of trees they identify as hazards.

Top photo credit: Fallen tree on powerline – courtesy BC Hydro Facebook page

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