Power outages are not uncommon along the Northwest Transmission Line. In 2019 vandals shot out insulators at one tower. (File photo)

Power outages are not uncommon along the Northwest Transmission Line. In 2019 vandals shot out insulators at one tower. (File photo)

Northern village Iskut slammed when power went out during January cold snap

Back up diesel generator couldn't meet demand, houses had no heat

The tiny community of Iskut up Hwy 37 North is getting less than it bargained for when BC Hydro shut down diesel generators and connected it to the provincial grid via the Northwest Transmission Line in Dec. 2014.

Of three diesel generators that had been supplying power to the community, two were taken out and the one remaining isn’t sufficient to meet the needs of residents should there be a power outage.

That’s happened several times but became a serious issue last month when extreme cold and heavy snow descended upon the area, resulting in losing all power from the provincial grid.

“It was -30, -40 for days,” recalls Marie Quock, the chief councillor of the Iskut Band, one of two bands making up the Tahltan Nation.

And because the one generator left by BC Hydro can’t supply the entire village, BC Hydro crews have to be selective about who gets power and who doesn’t, she says.

“The south end of the community, approximately 30 homes there were without power,” Quock says, indicating Iskut has approximately 120 residences.

Without power for freezers and refrigerators, residents also lost food supplies, she adds.

“If we had known it was going to be like this, we wouldn’t have agreed [to hook up to the grid],” Quock says.

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One substantial public-use building, the community’s arena, still has frozen pipes, she continues.

Quock adds that the band council’s emergency plan called for residents to gather at the school, where power was kept on.

And BC Hydro crews from Dease Lake also worked to keep the power on in the residences of elders, she says.

“The crew from Dease Lake was great. They did what they could,” Quock adds.

She says other power outages have occurred because of vandalism of the Northwest Transmission Line.

Tanya Fish from BC Hydro says the recent power outages were the result of damage to the Northwest Transmission Line infrastructure caused by severe winter weather, including very heavy snow loading on the actual lines which transmit power.

She acknowledges that the one generator left in Iskut isn’t sufficient. The other two were taken to other communities in the region.

“Diesel generators like the one in Iskut are designed to be used in the short-term to power a community’s core facilities, such as the school, the store, the water treatment plant and the Iskut Band Office in the event of an emergency, not to carry the electrical load of a community,” Fish says.

“We’re working with community leaders in Iskut and surrounding areas to help improve their emergency preparedness. As power outages are often unpredictable, we encourage customers to be prepared by having a well-stocked emergency kit that includes a first aid kit, flashlight with extra batteries, non-perishable food and bottled water. We recommend having enough supplies for each member of the household for at least 72 hours.”

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Both Quock and Dave Brocklebank, the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine board member for the area in which Iskut is located, say BC Hydro has told them it’s too expensive to locate more than one generator in Iskut.

“If you provide more than one, every community would want the same and our rates would rise,” says Brocklebank, adding that the provincial crown corporation has also told them it is policy to just have one back up generator in communities served by the provincial grid.

Quock questions BC Hydro’s statement about expense.

“Why do we have to make these concessions to help out BC Hydro,” Quock says of the crown corporation’s decision to leave Iskut with just one generator.

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According to BC Hydro figures provided in 2014 when the switch was made to hydro-electric power, the gross cost to run diesel generators for Iskut and area was approximately $1.5 million a year. After customer payments, the cost dropped to $860,000.

Brocklebank and Quock have had one meeting with BC Hydro to press the issue for better back up power.

The hydro-electric power from the provincial grid flowing to Iskut stems from BC Hydro’s Northwest Transmission Line, a 344km 287kv line running north of Terrace to a substation at Bob Quinn on Hwy37 North. It cost $746 million of which $130 million came from the federal government as a grant intended to take communities such as Iskut off of diesel power in favour of hydro-electric power.

A second 287kv line, called the Iskut extension, then runs 93km north of Bob Quinn to another substation at Tatogga Lake. And from there, a smaller 25kv distribution line extends further north to a facility near Iskut from where lines branch out to more than 160 residences, public buildings and businesses.

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