HIBBING — A power failure plunged nearly the entire city of Hibbing into darkness on Saturday afternoon, leaving 6,300 businesses and households without electricity and heat.
BoomTown Brewery and Woodfire Grill emptied out on Howard Street, and there was no power in the Memorial Building Arena. Hibbing Community College canceled a basketball game. Caribou Coffee closed its doors. Registers at Walmart Supercenter shut off. Gas stations were rendered useless. In bars, some people drank by the light of their cell phones.
On Monday, Dan Chase, the director of electrical systems at Hibbing Public Utilities, told the Hibbing Daily Tribune that “the issue occurred at the power plant” at 3 p.m. Saturday. He continued, “A main circuit control fuse failed. So, when that tripped, everything came down. What we found was a control circuit that controls the operation of that breaker. The fuse blew and that caused the breaker to trip. There was an outage, then a momentary on, then the outage for a total of 2.5 hours.”
Despite the lights returning at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, the steam system remained down for several more hours as people endured sub-zero temperatures without heat.
“We had two boilers up — a gas-fired and coal-fired boiler,” Chase said. “The coal-fired can somewhat ride through an outage because coal keeps burning, but natural gas shuts off, and it does take them a while to get the boilers back up to pressure after they recover from an outage.” He continued, “It took about six hours. By midnight, everyone had pressure and everyone’s heat should have been at full speed. If their house was cooled off, it takes a while to warm back up.”
Chase said there were no injuries or safety incidents during the power outage.
“Everybody was working from the same set of blueprints...,” he added. “I don’t know what we would have done differently to prevent it. It was a piece of equipment that decided it would have it and it was done.”
Also on Monday, HPU General Scott Hautala said the utility had posted updates during the power outage on its website.
Still, many customers took to social media to express frustration over the lack of information about the reasons for the outage or the time in which lights and heat would return. Hautala confirmed the utility does not have a Facebook page — a point of contention that began last year at this time when a massive outage left residents without electricity or answers.
In response to an abundance of 911 calls, the Hibbing Police Department started posting updates on its Facebook page at about 3:12 p.m. Saturday: “Yes the PUC is aware of the power outage. Please be patient as they work on the problem.”
Facebook users replied with comments thanking the HPU crews working to fix the issues. Some argued whether the utility could provide an ETA of when power would return. One person appeared undisturbed, “Put on a sweater and move on.” Another seemed tired of yet another power outage, “The problem is getting old.” A mother wrote, “The power being out at this time of year is an emergency. My apt has already dropped 15 degrees. I have 3 small children!”
At 3:39 p.m., the HPD posted: “Update on the power. Substation on South Townline Rd had a transformer out. DO NOT CALL THE PD or ‘911’ unless you have an emergency. The PUC is working on the outage. It will take at least one hour or more to restore the power.”
(Chase later clarified that “the problem occurred inside the power plant and it wasn’t outlying areas.”)
At 3:52 p.m., the HPD posted again, half in jest: “We are all victims of squirrels who chew on things they shouldn’t. Crews are actively working on restoring power. If you can, check on your elderly neighbors, or those with very young children.”
(Chase later noted, “No, it was definitely not a squirrel this time.”)
At 4:38 p.m., the HPD offered a final post: “Power is being restored. Parts of the city are back online. You all should have power soon. Thank you for your patience!”
Facebook users wrote comments thanking the police department for posting updates and for the HPU crews who fixed the electricity issue. One person wrote, “Teachable ‘hour’ — check supply of candles, flashlights and batteries and maybe invest in a battery operated radio. Some really good music on. We are survivors.” But others pointed out that there was no still word about when the steam would turn on again.
HPU Commissioner Jeffrey Stokes commented on the police department’s last post: “Thank you HPD for keeping the FB socialites up to date! The HPU will be creating a fb page since this seems to be a quicker way to get information out! We did have our occurrence posted on the HPU website. As a commissioner I would like to thank all employees who worked very hard to restore services as quick as possible! Thank you to all the people of Hibbing for understanding and the positive comments!”
Stokes continued, “I feel compelled to say something about the negative comments made by a previous commissioner. You sound very bitter when you post your negative comments like the ones you did and do on FB! Thanks again to the wonderful community!”
Former HPU Commissioner Larry McGuire previously posted comments on the lack of available information from the utility, “It was understanding [sic] we resolved this recurring problem last year when we had this same issues. Here’s hoping the Commission demands some resolution!”
At 6:50 p.m. Saturday, Hautala sent an email to the HDT that described how the “blown fuse caused a main circuit breaker to open causing the power to be interrupted for the majority of Hibbing Public Utilities electrical customers.” He added, “The electrical breaker opening also caused the power plant to stop steam production, thus our steam customers were also impacted.”
Hautala finalized his email by writing, “An excellent work done by everyone involved in the emergency event response from plant operations, plant maintenance, electrical linecrew, customer support, and the other utility crews.”
He later noted that personnel would be discussing their customer update methods on Wednesday this week.
Chase explained that crews would be taking time to review what “went well and what didn’t go so well.” The hope is to reduce response times in the future. He also asked that the public, when possible, use the utility company’s website rather than calling. “With the Saturday situation, we knew that the power was out and it was all hands on deck to get the power restored,” Chase said. “Some people have to call, but the website is the best way to go.”