New Brunswick's largest municipal power utility marks 100 years

The office of what was then known as Civic Hydro is shown in 1953. This was just a few years after the utility had become the sole power distribution company in Saint John. (Submitted Saint John Energy  - image credit)
The office of what was then known as Civic Hydro is shown in 1953. This was just a few years after the utility had become the sole power distribution company in Saint John. (Submitted Saint John Energy - image credit)

Saint John's municipal power utility grew out of an uprising by the city's electorate in 1922 — one that had never been seen before, or since.

Dave Horgan, Saint John Energy's manager of shared services and a 35-year employee with the utility, says it started out with a mayor's unfulfilled promise to lower the cost of electricity for city residents.

"In the early years of the 20th century, electricity in New Brunswick was largely in private hands with large businesses having their own power plants," Horgan said.  "And they would sell surplus to the nearby homes."

It wasn't cheap.

Nick Serrata 2019/Submitted by Saint John Energy
Nick Serrata 2019/Submitted by Saint John Energy

"In some cases, they were selling power at almost $0.15 a kWh and, like, even today we're at $0.10 a kWh."

So, in the spring municipal election, mayoral candidate Harry Mclellan campaigned on the slogan "Power at Cost."

His plan was to sign a deal with the newly formed N.B. Power to buy energy from the generating station it was building in Musquash.

"So, he wins the election handily, promises the contract is going to be signed," Horgan said. "But then a month later, he backs out of the agreement and says he wants Saint John to build [its] own power plant at either Mispec or out at Silver Falls in east Saint John.

"And the electorate, of course, is up in arms."

For the only time in Saint John's history, the mayor is subjected to a recall.

In the ensuing election, Mclellan goes down to defeat to Fred Fisher, who ran on a single issue — the price of power.

Fisher's initial deal with N.B. Power gives Saint Johners access to electricity at just a little over a penny per kWh, and the Power Commission of the City of Saint John is born on Dec. 5, 1922.

Saint John Energy
Saint John Energy

In a little under 30 years, Civic Hydro, as it was commonly known, would swallow up its main competition in power distribution, doubling in size and creating the municipal utility known today.

It's hard to argue against the utility's success.

Horgan points out it is still able to pass along savings to Saint John residents, just like it did when it began in 1922.

"We've certainly benefited from having a distribution system that is denser than the rest of the province and it allows us to to service it with less people and to be more efficient," Horgan said.

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

"So our residential rates are on average about 10 per cent lower than the provincial rates."

Its value is recognized by the city, as illustrated two years ago when a buyer came sniffing at Saint John Energy's door.

In April 2020, a company approached the City of Saint John, which was then strapped for cash, about purchasing the utility.

The promise of millions of dollars in yearly dividends could have looked good to a city council facing a huge deficit and forced to make $10 million in cuts.

Instead, councillors voted almost unanimously on a motion to ban any possible sale of the utility going forward.

"It's working great, it's well respected, it gives good service, it doesn't have debt, it's a quality asset," said Mayor Donna Reardon at the time.

Submitted by Saint John Energy
Submitted by Saint John Energy

It was also clear on social media that the public felt the same way about Saint John Energy, leading the utility's CEO to thank them for their support.

It wasn't always easy, especially when Mother Nature came calling.

Horgan pointed to the Groundhog Day Gale of 1976, one of the few times the utility needed to call in help from outside companies.

He said former CEO Richard Burpee told one story that illustrates how overwhelming the damage was for the company.

A pole on Fairville Boulevard was in danger of toppling, and crews tried a stopgap measure to give them time to deal with more pressing problems.

"So, they lashed the pole to one of the service trucks and then they went about and did their work," Horgan said. "And two days later, they were wondering where the truck was when someone remembered that it had a pole still lashed to it."

Natural Forces
Natural Forces

Horgan said the ice storm of 1998 may have been worse, with hundreds of individual homes losing connection to the grid.

He said restoring power was basically a door-to-door process.

"On Day 5, they were so deep into the bench that they were trying to get anybody to answer the phone so that the regular staff could get a break."

That's how Horgan, at the time an IT specialist, found himself answering phone calls from residents from midnight to 6 a.m.

He said the storm led to big changes in how the utility now responds to calls.

The future

Today, Saint John Energy is about to become a power generator for the first time in its history.

It has partnered with a company called Natural Forces on the Burchill Wind Project.

Now under construction, the plan is to build 10 wind turbines in Lorneville, near the Coleson Cove generating station.

It will provide about 15 per cent of the city's electricity needs.

Horgan said he thinks the utility's size allows it to be more nimble, which serves it well as energy technologies improve.

"Burchill is the largest project that we've participated in with some of our partners, but it won't be the last. We're always looking for new innovative methods," he said.