IT was as if Saudi Arabia had run out of gasoline for a few days - electricity-rich Quebec experienced power outages.
Demand surged in the cold days of late December. Cuts in service were due to extremes in the weather, not an overloaded system, insists Hydro-Quebec, the provincially owned utility.
``We haven't had a province-wide blackout since 1989,'' says Helen Mayer of Hydro-Quebec in Montreal. ``These are local failures which are caused by storms or sudden changes in temperature.''
Giant hydroelectric stations usually make Quebec an exporter of electricity to the United States and other Canadian provinces. But with the coldest weather on record and with peak demand for electricity, the province is keeping its winter power to itself.
Not only is Quebec a major producer of electricity, it is also a major consumer. The province relies less on oil and natural gas as a source of heat for houses and apartment buildings than do most other cold places on the continent.
With the second lowest electricity rates in North America, Quebeckers prefer electric heat and hot-water heaters. Only the Canadian province of Manitoba, itself rich in hydroelectric power, has cheaper rates.
Decades of inexpensive power and the high price of oil in the late '70s have prompted 70 percent of households in Quebec to heat with electricity. When the temperature drops electricity use soars.
During the coldest spell in December, some Quebeckers went without power for as long as 12 hours.
The night after Christmas, 35,000 residents of Montreal were without electricity; the next night 5,600 rural residents were cut off.
``We lost some produce because our freezers weren't working,'' says Diane Beauchamp, who owns a supermarket in rural St. Paul de Ile-aux-Noix, near the border with New York state. She was angry that she was without power on one of the coldest nights on record.
``The record was set on Dec. 27 when it was 23 below Fahrenheit,'' says Jacques Pellerin of the weather office at Montreal's Dorval airport.
Mr. Pellerin says the coldest time of day in the winter is one hour after sunset. On Dec. 27 the northern sun sets at 4:13 p.m., so by just after 5 o'clock, peak cold met peak demand.
``The peak demand was at about 5:15 on Dec. 27th,'' says Mayer of Hydro-Quebec, confirming what should have happened in theory did actually occur.
That peak in demand came close to taking all the power Hydro-Quebec had to offer. The utility says the power outages were local and not due to demand surges overtaxing the system. The power failures did coincide with the peaks of temperature and use, but the utility contends that it still had power to spare.
Hydro-Quebec has an ``installed'' capacity of 29,965 megawatts. On Dec. 27 it used 28,926 megawatts, leaving little of its own peak generating power to spare.
But it still had a reserve. ``We can buy up to 5,000 megawatts of power from the Churchill Falls project in Labrador,'' Mayer says. ``So the capacity of the system at the end of 1993 was really 33,821 megawatts.''
Quebec's utility grid will meet more challenges this winter.
February is the cruelest month. Last year, it was the only month when the temperature never once went above freezing. And it had the second coldest day of the year, just a fraction above 23 below in Montreal.
In 1992, Quebec's peak power day came on a cold February evening. ``It happened on a Sunday which is unusual,'' Mayer says. ``Peaks are usually midweek when businesses are operating.''
They often come in the first weeks of January, when cold combines with industrial demand and the short days of winter. February may be colder, but it has more sun.
While cold weather puts pressure on the system, other weather has helped Hydro-Quebec. Rain and snow have replenished the reservoirs behind the dams that provide Quebec's cheap electricity. When the province last used more power than it could provide - in 1988 - it was the end of several years of drought and reservoirs were low.
Domestic demand for power is seasonal and has little effect on Hydro-Quebec's external sales of electricity, comprising 4 to 5 percent of its total revenue.
Exports southward are timed for delivery when Quebeckers turn off their electric heaters and people in the US turn on their air conditioners. For instance, New York State Power Authority has a contract with Hydro-Quebec that only runs from April to October.
``Exports work out to about 5 percent of production and 4 percent of revenues,'' Mayer says. ``We do sell some electricity to other Canadian provinces, but the bulk of our sales are to the United States.''