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Power outage was unacceptable

Outage: Nadir Wade, managing director, generation, of Belco, and company president Wayne Caines address the media on Friday (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Bermuda’s reputation for modern and reliable infrastructure, essential to its quality of life and economic success, is under threat after the island-wide power outage on Friday.

The types of businesses Bermuda depends on for its survival will not come to or stay in Bermuda if things don’t work.

They accept that events such as hurricanes will cause power outages, although why Bermuda still has so many overhead lines that are vulnerable to high winds is a mystery.

Such events are, in investment parlance, “baked in”. Events like Friday’s are not. It was lucky that it occurred towards the end of the working day when schools were just finishing. Nonetheless, it caused massive problems and expense for many people.

In December 2020, former Belco president Dennis Pimentel could claim: “It should be noted that Belco is one of the most reliable small-island power plants in the world.”

That statement came in the wake of an island-wide power outage, about which he added: “This outage was a rare occurrence, the first such incident in more than 15 years, with the previous outage having been caused by a catastrophic fire.”

That claim can no longer be made. Now Bermuda has island-wide power outages —apart from weather-induced ones — every two years.

In 2020, Wayne Caines, at the time the new president of Belco’s owner, added: “My promise is that we will do everything possible to avoid a repeat of this incident.”

Four months later, as Belco released a report on the causes of that power outage, Mr Caines added: “Since the incident occurred, the faulty equipment has been reconfigured to ensure another fault of this nature does not occur and impact the company’s ability to supply energy to our customers.”

Two years and one month later, Bermuda experienced another island-wide power outage owing to a fault in a power plant.

The cause of the shutdown is still to be fully confirmed, but Belco reported on Sunday that was it was caused when there a failure of part of a voltage transformer associated with a baseload engine. That failure then worked as designed, tripping the engine and shutting it down.

The statement added: “The remaining engines and battery energy storage system attempted to pick up the load but the frequency of the system became unstable and resulted in the loss of the remaining generating units as further protection systems were engaged.”

Belco said the faulty transformer had been replaced and was being sent overseas for analysis.

It is too early to fully assign responsibility for what went wrong.

But it is not too early to say this is not good enough. As Oscar Wilde once wrote: “Losing one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

In Belco’s case, to have one island-wide power outage might be forgiven, but to have it happen twice in two years begins to look like carelessness or worse.

The last time Bermuda had a power outage, Belco said it was because of an oversight in the commissioning of the new North Power Station and “incorrect operating instructions” being given to the company by the contractor who built it.

Belco must complete its investigation into what went wrong on Friday as quickly as possible and give the public and its regulator its findings.

That regulator, the Regulatory Authority, blamed “critical deficiencies” at Belco itself for the 2020 outage.

It added: “The extensive technical reviews, which included numerous rounds of assessments and independent reviews between Belco and the RA, identified several critical deficiencies which contributed to the outage.

“Numerous improvements and recommendations have been made to Belco, including a review of the entire new North Power Station commissioning process.”

The RA must now say whether those recommendations were followed. It needs to determine if those recommendations would have prevented Friday’s outage. It is possible they might not have, but the public have a right to know one way or another.

Conversely, if its recommendations were not followed, it needs to say why not and what actions the RA took — or failed to take — to enforce them.

Here’s the bottom line: Belco has enjoyed monopoly status for decades and its customers pay among the highest bills in the world. In return, it must provide a reliable service. That’s not too much to ask.

Those who lead the company must be held accountable.

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Published February 07, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated February 06, 2023 at 10:06 pm)

Power outage was unacceptable

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