02 March 2011

A cheaper, green alternative to Muskrat Falls

Natural resources minister Shawn Skinner has hit on a cheaper, less risky green alternative to the Muskrat Falls megaproject.

He didn’t mean to do that, of course.  he was actually trying to justify Muskrat Falls by claiming the project will give the province energy security by allowing the island portion of the province to import power from the mainland in the event of an emergency.

The major way of doing that would be through the tie to Nova Scotia, according to Skinner. As the Telegram quotes Skinner:

“We’re anticipating to mostly use it to export excess capacity, excess electricity into the Atlantic provinces and the northeast United States, but in the event of a catastrophe … it would be possible for us to import electricity,” Skinner said in a recent interview.

That’s certainly true, but that isn’t a rationale for building a very expensive dam in Labrador and a very expensive power line from that dam to St. John’s especially when the island portion of the province doesn’t need the juice. 

But let’s just allow for a second that the island needs power. Skinner has actually given Newfoundlanders and Labradorians a far better option to meet the province’s energy needs that building Muskrat Falls.

At $1.2 billion, the line to Nova Scotia would actually meet the island’s energy needs and give the energy security Skinner is talking about. Nalcor or Newfoundland Power could import power from the mainland if it is needed. 

But more importantly the line from Nova Scotia and an upgrade to the line across the Isthmus of Avalon would help bring to market all that stranded central Newfoundland hydro seized by government in the botched expropriation.  In addition, it would allow for wind and new small hydro projects on the island.  Right now, there’s no place for that extra power to go when it isn’t needed on the island.  A link to Nova Scotia would take care of that.

And all that wind generation and small hydro – far cheaper than Muskrat Falls  - would help displace the thermal generator at Holyrood with green energy that is far cheaper than the $5.0 billion dam and power line project that is at the heart of Danny Williams’ legacy project.

The line would cost $1.2 billion compared to $5.0 billion for the dam and line to St.John’s.  Emera is already committed to the Nova Scotia line.  If Nalcor split the bill 50/50, then the actual cost of Nalcor would be a mere $600 million plus annual operating costs.  Nalcor and Emera wouldn’t need a federal loan guarantee or any federal financial help at all in that scenario.  Nalcor could fund its share from offshore oil revenues.  Heck, the provincial government could build it’s share of the line right now for cash since it has billions on hand in temporary investments.  Talk about the perfect go-it-alone, stand-on-your-own-two-feet, “have province” option.

On top of that, there are plenty of private operators ready to build wind projects on the island;  the only thing stopping them right now is Nalcor and government policy.  In other words, there’s no practical reason not to pursue the cheaper, green options.  Private sector companies could build the projects either alone or in partnership with Nalcor. 

Unfortunately, the tie to Nova Scotia is the last thing on the list of things to be built for the current version of the Lower Churchill. And right now Skinner and his colleagues are obsessed with a very expensive very risky project that could wind up going way over budget. 

Given the soft markets for electricity in the near-term, it would actually make economic sense to wait a while to build the entire Lower Churchill until the markets will buy the power with long-term deals.  That’s much better for consumers in the province who, right now, are staring at a government hell-bent on doubling their electricity rates by 2017 and saddling them with $5.0 billion in debt on top of the $12 billion they currently owe.

There’d be an added bonus in building the Nova Scotia line first:  Nalcor would have export infrastructure plus it would have a megaproject to its credit to prove to investors it can deliver complex engineering work on-time and at or under budget.

On top of that, a policy that encouraged private sector investment for wind development would go a long way to reversing the image the province has gained since 2003 of a banana republic where the government is closed for business.

Cheap, green energy to meet the needs on the most populous part of the province at a low cost and with the potential to bring new revenue from exports?

Job done.