Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Great Ice Storm of ’98 recalled

As Vermonters recover from two back-to-back, end-of-year, severe storms that hammered homeowners, businesses and farms, some may recall the Great Ice Storm of early January 1998.

While my household in Middlebury was recently without power for four days as a result of Storm Eliot, also known as a bomb cyclone, my mind kept wandering back to 25 years ago when a blanket of ice — up to four inches thick — smothered Northern Vermont, New York and southern Quebec from Jan. 6 to 10, 1998.

The result was devastating.

The damage from the ice storm was estimated to be over $3 billion, with millions of customers losing power, some for several weeks, as well as millions of acres of trees damaged. The human toll was even more startling as some 40 deaths were attributed to storm impacts.

I was working at Green Mountain Power then and witnessed firsthand the severe damage caused by the storm. At the time, before the 2012 acquisition of CVPS, GMP had 83,200 customers and 40,000 lost power, many for one week.

Many Vermonters still recall hearing heavily ice-laden trees with big branches, as well as power poles, come crashing down with a loud crack as the icing continued to build up to four inches on structures.

Powerline crews had great difficulty reaching some of GMP’s customers. They were helped by the Vermont National Guard, who had to fight their way through roads that were blocked by downed trees.

For perspective, Vermont utility line crews start to get very nervous about prolonged outages when ice build-up is about one-half an inch. The massive 1998 storm deposited up to four inches of ice over four days. Not even the strongest tree or steel utility transmission structure could withstand that pounding.

Customers lost power as the ice storm caused many massive Hydro Quebec steel transmission towers to topple like matchsticks, shutting off exports south to Vermont. As a result, electrons generated by Vermont Yankee and fossil-fuel fired plants in Southern New England were shifted north to Northwest Vermont to meet the demand.

There were many lessons from the Great Ice Storm.

Dotty Schnure, the longtime GMP director of communications, recently recalled that in advance of the big ice storm GMP started an advance planning effort to bring to GMP 200 line crews and support personnel from out of state to augment the home force of about 60 linemen and associated personnel. Those lessons are now standard operating procedures before any big weather event.

For example, for the recent storm, GMP had 400 line workers and contracted out-of-state crews working around the clock through Christmas to restore power for more than 75,000 customers.

In 1987, Vermont had signed a 25-year, $4 billion contract with Hydro Quebec, the government-owned utility, to supply power to Vermont utilities known as the Vermont Joint Owners.

The 1998 ice storm had a major impact on Vermont-Hydro Quebec relations that resulted in the establishment of an international arbitration panel to decide whether Vermont utilities should be compensated for the loss of replacement power from Jan. 5, 1998, to mid-March 1998 that it had to buy to satisfy customer demand.

The Joint Owners sued Hydro-Quebec in 1998 for breach of contract arguing that the provincial utility failed in its duty to keep its big transmission lines updated to withstand the impact of the storm. The Vermont utilities were also seeking to end the long-term contract with HQ, which at the time was above market compared to regional energy and demand prices.

Hydro-Quebec forcefully argued that it was not at fault because the ice storm was an “Act of God” and, therefore, excused from paying Vermont for power losses. HQ was also very much opposed to ending the Vermont contract as it was quite profitable for the province of Quebec.

The International Arbitration Panel, an expensive legal proceeding, continued until April 2001 when it ruled that although the Vermont Joint Owners could recover some of the additional power costs, it agreed with Hydro-Quebec that the ice storm was an “Act of God.” It also firmly rejected the effort to end the power contract. 

That said, sometimes it pays to not get what you wished to achieve. Such was the case of the HQ-Vermont 1987 contract, which in the end proved to be beneficial for Vermont ratepayers.

While the decision at the time was disappointing for the Vermont parties, it proved later to be favorable for the state as regional market power costs then rose above the fixed price (except for inflation) in the HQ contract, and remained so for the duration.

A subsequent long-term contract was signed in 2010 with HQ, the same year the Legislature and the governor enacted into law hydropower as a “renewable” resource.

Stephen C. Terry

Middlebury

Editor’s note: Stephen C. Terry retired as senior vice president of Green Mountain Power in 2014, after 29 years with the utility.

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