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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Power problems right down the line

Submitted — A map shows the route of the Churchill Falls-Muskrat Falls and the Labrador-Island Transmission Link transmission lines.
The route of the Churchill Falls-Muskrat Falls and the Labrador-Island Transmission Link transmission lines. — Submitted photo

Hi.

It’s me again, just pointing out, (with apologies to “Game of Thrones”) that winter is coming.

And it could be an interesting one.

In a recent letter, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro told the Public Utilities Board that the Labrador Island Link (LIL) is a further two months behind, meaning, as The Telegram reported late this week, we’ll be depending on the aging turbines at Holyrood for power through the winter again.

Now, there’s a new quarterly report for the PUB from energy consulting firm Liberty Consulting Group that adds more detail.

“The current schedule for LIL operation calls for low power testing to begin in January 2020 — well after the start of the coming winter period. Moreover, and with software problems still emerging, there is no longer any ‘float’ in the schedule for getting the LIL into commercial operation. Therefore, any additional delays will extend the schedule further, creating a risk that the LIL will not provide a source of power flow until late in or after the coming winter season,” Liberty says.

Translation? It’s getting down to crunch time.

For years, the growing delays in getting the transmission line to work have been concealed by a much bigger problem: delays at the Muskrat Falls site itself.

But now, the LIL delays have gotten large enough that they’ve eclipsed the on-site problems in Labrador. As Liberty found, “Long-continuing and extending LIL delays now threaten start-up activities at the Muskrat Falls generating units as well. The schedule for Muskrat Falls first generation now leads that for LIL operation.”

One of the biggest problems?

Dominos.

For years, the growing delays in getting the transmission line to work have been concealed by a much bigger problem: delays at the Muskrat Falls site itself.

The first of the Muskrat Falls turbines is supposed to come online in the fall; it has to be commissioned, and that means supplying power. Right now, and for a considerable amount of time, that power can’t go on the LIL.

But you can’t just generate power and throw it in a ditch somewhere.

As Liberty puts it, “The LIL’s unavailability to transmit initial power from Muskrat Falls will require Nalcor to secure a dependable delivery path for Muskrat Falls power westerly over the LTA.” (The LTA refers to Labrador Transmission Assets.)

Let’s unpack that sentence from Liberty.

What’s west?

Well, the LTA connects to Churchill Falls, and on to Hydro-Québec’s transmission system.

Here’s a question: if you were Hydro-Québec, how much of a hurry would you be in to help a new potential competitor for export power sales?

It’s almost tragic.

Even after the LIL is tested in January and February, it won’t be ready to go. A new software version is already planned to fix expected bugs in the as-yet-unfinished first version, and installing the second version will mean the LIL would go dark again.

“After installation of the final bipole software, a roughly two-month period to complete commissioning would normally occur. This duration indicates commencement of final bipole testing around July 2020, with completion before the 2020/2021 winter season,” Liberty says.

They also point out that when Nalcor and GE Grid Solutions tried to run a version of operational software that would energize just one of the twin powerlines in the LIL, things didn’t go as planned: “Experience from LIL Pole 1 software/commissioning, however, indicates the potential for slippage potentially extending the commissioning process considerably.”

And time is running out.

“Thus, we continue to have significant concern about the number of activities still awaiting completion. With the third quarter upon Nalcor, there is very little time left to accomplish the materially improved rate of work completion required to meet the schedule. We continue to emphasize the need, with ever less time remaining to complete activities, to turn the ‘corner’ in completing critical work.”

To be fair, none of this comes as a total surprise. Liberty has been reporting on the problems with GE Grid Solutions and their software for the LIL for months. Bugs, more bugs, delays, abnormal numbers of line trips, shortage of staff, long time-lines for commissioning — it’s been piling up for ages.

We’re at the point now that Liberty’s saying that the overall delay will be a help for other LIL functions that are falling behind, like the fact that “Emergency response and restoration plans and exercises for the LIL’s long overhead line that runs through Labrador and the Island remain incomplete and require significant attention.”

Now, there’s time to fix that problem before the line is in service.

A silver lining to every tragic cloud…

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.


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