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Power’s back but questions remain. What can we learn from the Quebec ice storm for next time?

The ice storm that paralyzed Quebec and shut off power to much of the province earlier this month has now, officially, ended. The last customers affected by the storm were reconnected to the grid this week, Hydro-Québec said. 

But we asked you if you had any questions about the storm, the outages or the aftermath. You sent us your queries and we’ve answered them. 

Here are your questions, answered:

Who decides what gets electricity connected first and why? 

Hydro-Québec makes that call. The company says it prioritizes outages that pose an imminent risk to public safety. That means it hurries to get power back to hospitals and other emergency services. 

Hydro-Québec also says it tries to address outages that affect large numbers of people first. So if the utility has to choose between an outage that affects 1,000 people, or one that affects 10, they’ll rewire the former first. 

Outage priority list.
Hydro-Québec’s website shows this graphic to explain how it prioritizes outages and decides who to reconnect first. (Hydro-Québec)

Next on its priority level is what Hydro-Québec calls “strategic” priorities. That includes restoring service to media outlets, for example, and other urgent public communications services, so people can get information during crisis events. 

Third, Hydro-Québec says it tries to get power back to “critical” priorities, including CHSLDs, clinics and other public services. Finally, at the bottom of the company’s priority list are residences and commercial buildings. 

Ultimately, however, these priorities could change, Hydro-Québec says, “depending on the situation, the specific needs of a municipality or the requirement of public security officials.”

How is it possible in 2023 to have a distribution network that is this fragile? 

Quebec’s auditor general raised some concerns about the state of Hydro-Québec’s network in a report in December. 

The report flagged that outages were becoming more frequent in Quebec and were lasting longer in part because of the utility’s aging equipment, but also because Hydro-Québec had fallen behind on trimming back vegetation near wires. 

You can read more about that here: 

At the time, Hydro-Québec acknowledged that as infrastructure ages, it becomes more likely to fail and becomes more vulnerable to high winds and other inclement weather such as freezing rain — events that are expected to become more common due to climate change. 

Why haven’t they controlled tree growth more successfully? 

The auditor general’s report criticized Hydro-Québec for inadequately investing in protecting its lines from tree growth. 

Hydro-Québec said two things were keeping its crews busy and slowing preventive maintenance: an increase in severe weather events and an increase in connection requests, which the company is required to respond to. 

Will there be any compensation for people who were without power for 5 or more days?

The Quebec government announced that people on social assistance whose power was out for more than 24 hours would be eligible for financial aid to cover food costs.

The aid is fixed at $75 per family member up to a maximum of $300 per household. 

If you want to see if you can file a claim with Hydro-Québec for damages, you can check this website here. But the utility says its liability is limited.

WATCH | What will my insurance company cover?

powers back but questions remain what can we learn from the quebec ice storm for next time 1

Ice storm: what’s covered by your insurance ?

3 days ago

Duration 5:14

Pierre Babinsky, the communications and public affairs director with the Insurance Bureau of Canada, explains what is covered by people’s insurance.

What is being done to prevent this from happening again?

Experts say there are a few things Hydro-Québec can do to stop another storm from knocking out the grid. 

Those things include burying wires, upgrading equipment and investing more in keeping its wires protected from trees. 

You can read more about that here: 

But ultimately, some experts say, there’s only so much the company can do to prevent a major natural disaster from wreaking havoc. 

“It’s extremely difficult to be ready for a period of disaster,” said Pierre-Olivier Pineau, an energy policy specialist and professor at HEC Montréal. “Whenever there is a problem everyone is quick to criticize but when there are investments they criticize the investments.”

Why does it seem like the West Island was hit the hardest or waited the longest for power to come back?

The West Island is an area of Montreal with lots of large, old trees, many of them growing above power lines. 

Hydro-Québec said all the highly affected regions during the storm were places with many mature trees that were weighed down by ice. 

“We have a very large network,” said Caroline Des Rosiers, a Hydro-Québec spokesperson. “Some parts are aging, we could have done a better maintenance job in the last few years but this is not what is the cause of what happened last week. It is a vegetation problem, especially in the West Island.” 

Daybreak Montreal7:05Beaconsfield mayor says Quebec must upgrade ‘old’ and ‘fragile’ hydro grid

Daybreak host Sean Henry speaks with Beaconsfield Mayor Georges Bourelle about the impact of last week’s freezing rain and how municipalities and the province can be better prepared for the next storm.

Did Hydro call in help from outside of the province during the latest storm?

Yes, but also no. 

Hydro-Québec did pay contractors to help with tree pruning and some of those contractors called in workers from New-Brunswick and Ontario. 

But the company didn’t call in the help of lineworkers from other provinces to help reconnect wires, which they have done in the past during major outage events like a winter storm in December.

The reason they didn’t, Hydro-Québec said, was because this storm was unique in the complexity of the outages it caused. It would have been too difficult to co-ordinate with workers from other provinces who have different protocols for shutting off current to areas where there are downed trees, the company said. 

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