11 January 2009

Whose line is it anyway?

In this case a transmission line for the Lower Churchill.

A couple of weeks ago, former Premier Roger Grimes took issue with a comment by noob finance minister Jerome Kennedy that the Lower Churchill transmission line would be a good project for federal infrastructure spending.

The Telegram story - not online - quoted Grimes:

"There has been no routing actually planned for a transmission line,"says Grimes. "If they have a transmission line already planned, already designed ... then why don't they tell us where it is?"
He was reacting to Kennedy who the Telegram quoted as saying:
"That's something that we could start immediately, it's something that
we wouldn't have to wait for the environmental assessments because, essentially, we'd simply be building a transmission line," said Kennedy at the time.

Kennedy said Transportation Minister Trevor Taylor delivered a similar
message to federal Infrastructure Minister John Baird just days before.

Similar comments were made by [Premier Danny ] Williams in a year-end interview with The Telegram.
Williams did mention the Lower Churchill in that year-end interview.

Williams also took issue with Kennedy’s comments in the Telly story on Grimes’ comments saying that Kennedy had spoken out of turn. There would need to be an environmental impact assessment. Williams also said that Grimes simply didn’t know enough about what was going on:

"Poor Roger is talking through his hat. He doesn't have the background,he doesn't have the information," says Williams.

"We've been working on this plan for a long, long time, we've a lot of
engineering done," says Williams.
Of course, Grimes and Williams have been at odds over the Lower Churchill for years and of all the province’s politicians, Grimes seems to have a unique ability to get under Williams’ skin.

But that’s not the only talk of transmission lines since the New Year. Emera president Chris Huskelson told the Halifax Chronicle Herald that without a line to Newfoundland, it made no sense – presumably economic sense - to try and ship power directly from Labrador into the Maritimes.

"Newfoundland decides to bring energy to the island, it makes perfect sense to bring energy further to Nova Scotia. If they decide not to bring energy to the island, it won’t make sense to bring it to Nova Scotia."

Then to cap it all, Ed Martin, president and chief executive officer of NALCO(R) and Hydro told the Chronicle Herald that shipping power across the Cabot Strait to Nova Scotia is one of the options Hydro is looking at for the Lower Churchill. Hydro and Emera signed a memorandum of understanding a year ago to explore the possibility of shipping power from the Lower Churchill to Nova Scotia. But as Martin said this weekend:

"It’s looking like somewhere in the Sydney area would be an excellent landfall for us," Mr. Martin said of the proposed undersea cable.

"Not only is it distance-wise one of the closest points to Newfoundland, but it’s close to the Lingan plant, which is a significant emitter for Nova Scotia (Power) . . . but nothing is final yet."

Nothing is final yet.

Well, nothing is really clear in all of this. As labradore noted in a post on Sunday, not so very long ago, Martin and Hydro were talking about shipping electricity into New Brunswick from Cap St. George on Newfoundland’s west coast. That was certainly the option examined in 2005, as reported by both the Telegram and Stephen Maher of the Chronicle Herald. Sea Breeze Power of British Columbia was proposing an underwater line from the coast of labradore to Prince Edward Island or Nova Scotia.

This isn’t a new idea. As Bond Papers reported in 2007, the idea of underwater transmission lines for Lower Churchill power goes back to the 1970s although officials were quick to note that it wasn’t an attractive proposition:

For one thing, according to Vic Young, president of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, the 77-mile cable across the Cabot Strait is an extremely poor prospect. Although a study two years ago stated it was technically possible, its capital and maintenance costs would be enormous. The electricity delivered would cost about twice what it would if brought down overland.

But all this talk of transmission lines and environmental assessments gets really curious when one looks at the Lower Churchill proposal which is now in the hands of a joint federal-provincial environmental assessment panel.

The only transmission lines mentioned in that proposal are for two running from Muskrat Falls to Gull Island and then a single line back to Churchill Falls. From there, power would head into Quebec through the existing interconnection.

The project is described very straightforwardly in the agreement between the federal and provincial governments on the environmental review panel:

The Proponent proposes a project/undertaking consisting of hydroelectric generating facilities at Gull Island and Muskrat Falls, and interconnecting transmission lines to the existing Labrador grid.

Interconnecting transmission lines consisting of:

• A 735 kV transmission line between Gull Island and Churchill Falls; and,

• Two 230 kV transmission lines between Muskrat Falls and Gull Island.

The 735 kV transmission line is to be 203 km long and the 230 kV transmission lines are to be 60 km long. Both lines will be lattice-type steel structures. The location of the transmission lines is to be north of the Churchill River; the final route is the subject of a route selection study that will be combined on double-circuit structures.

No proposal has been presented publicly for any other transmission lines related to the Lower Churchill. There’s nothing in Quebec or New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In Both Quebec and New Brunswick, Hydro has simply filed an application for wheeling - moving power through the existing grid - but there’s no discussion of new transmission lines.

While Danny Williams might claim Roger Grimes isn’t up-to-speed on the project, existing public information suggests the Premier and his finance minister aren’t exactly coming clean on the whole thing either.

In fact, Grimes might well be closer to the truth given that if a new transmission line – say through Quebec – is being contemplated there’s been nothing done to make it possible within the next couple of months.

As Grimes noted – and the Premier concurred – a transmission line would have to go through an environmental assessment. That idea would be a wee bit more complicated politically if the line through Quebec was expressly intended to carry power from the Lower Churchill through Quebec to another market.

If there’s another line Kennedy was thinking about, like say across to eastern Newfoundland, there’s still a provincial environmental process that would at least have to be considered. The major problem there is one of cost. Figure on a project costing upwards of $2.0 billion by the time it is done.

The cost of that little make-work venture would be borne entirely by the ratepayers of eastern Newfoundland who, it should be noted, don’t really need all that extra power and certainly wouldn’t get it right away, anyway. Hydro just expropriated over a 100 megawatts of generating capacity from AbitibiBowater and there is surplus power in the grid since the Abitibi Stephenville mill closed in 2005. The Inco project at Long Harbour will suck up some of the juice but there is no great demand for power on the island in the near term.

As for timing, those lines – even if they were built over the next couple of years – would be more than a decade old before any Lower Churchill power coursed through them. The Lower Churchill project will take nine years to complete. The proposal in the environmental review called for construction to start in 2009 with first power in 2014 and the completion of the whole thing in 2018.

But even if the environmental assessment is finished this year it would be well into 2010 before anyone would start digging dirt in Labrador.

Even 2010 would be an optimistic start-time these given that Hydro doesn’t have a single customer for the Lower Churchill power and the money markets are a wee bit skittish these days what with the shortage of capital in the markets.

Heaven forbid that work might start without those contracts in place and with the work being funded out of the public treasury or whatever cash the energy corporation might have laying about. That’s what happened last time with BRINCO as some people are only now realizing. The company borrowed cash and started work in the mid-1960s. Hydro Quebec took maximum advantage of the BRINCO foolishness and with the latter in a financial bind managed to secure the sort of contract concessions it had been seeking from the start.

All the bluster at the time about running power down through Nova Scotia was just a tactic to improve the bargaining position with Hydro Quebec. Ditto the talk of running a line through Quebec with federal backing. There’s no evidence the request was ever made, even though many people insist on repeating the story. In the end, Hydro Quebec got everything it was looking for from the start and then some.

Maybe what we have here with all this talk of transmission lines is the same sort of bluster and political posturing we saw 40-odd years ago.

Certainly there is nothing in the public domain to suggest that anything Kennedy referred to is real.

Maybe Roger Grimes knows a lot more than Danny Williams will ever give him credit for. And when it comes to contracts, it’s not like the two haven’t been at odds before with Williams having to change his position when the facts were in. Anyone remember Voisey’s Bay?