16 October 2012

The Dangers of Being a Mythbuster – Transmission Lines #nlpoli

As a rule, any commentary that purports in its title to bust myths usually winds up perpetuating a myth or two of its own.

Corollary: if it doesn’t propagate a few myths, there’s a danger that the same commentary will contain misinformation that will lead people off into the trees.

John Samms' recent post sets out to debunk a few myths about Muskrat Falls but winds up proving the old mythbuster rule and the corollary in the process.

Here’s how.

Myth #1: Con O’Brien argued via twitter that there was no link between the Maritime link and the Labrador link, meaning that Muskrat Falls would not power export to Nova Scotia.

John states the supposed myth then quotes Nalcor’s Gil Bennett that the electricity can flow from the Soldier’s Pond converter to the Maritime Link at the bottom end of the Bay d’Espoir complex.

Myth busted. There is a connection after all.

Well, no.

Part of the problem with John’s presentation is that you have to understand the point Con O’Brien appears to have been driving at in the first place as well as the issues relating to it. The issue is not whether or not there is a connection but what type of connection there is.

Without knowing specifically what O’Brien stated, what he is probably driving at is that there is no direct current transmission line to connect Nova Scotia and Labrador. This is important because one of the rationales for Muskrat Falls is that it offers a gateway to transmit Labrador power to markets in the Maritimes and the United States without going through Quebec. It’s also important because another key part of the initial Muskrat Falls announcement included the plan to ship lots of lovely green electricity from Muskrat Falls to Nova Scotia.

To get a good visual of what electricity transmission is like, think of roadways. You have high-speed, multilane highways that zip you rapidly from one part of a city or province to another. And you have a bunch of feeder roads that are slower and that cannot handle the same volume of traffic. You will still get from Point A to Point B via the feeder roads, but not as easily as the highway.

To see what Nalcor has planned, you just have to look at a Nalcor map.


That yellow line from Muskrat Falls to Soldier’s Pond is a highway. It’s a high voltage direct current line used to transmit huge amounts of electricity over long distances efficiently and cheaply.

That red line is the early map of the link to Nova Scotia. It’s a another electricity highway using high voltage direct current that allows you to ship electricity cheaply and efficiently over long distances. The end of it is now slightly further east, but there is no connection between the one DC line from Labrador and the other to Nova Scotia.

The white dotted line in between is the alternating current transmission system that is, essentially, the domestic provincial grid on the island. This alternating current is the stuff that hooks up to your house ultimately. In North America, the short range electricity system is alternating current because that is the standard that the industry has developed.

If you wanted to send electricity from Labrador to Nova Scotia using the existing Nalcor plan, you would send it as direct current down the line to Soldier’s Pond, convert it to alternating current, then run it back over the island grid to the point in Bay d’Espoir where the Maritime Link starts. Then you would convert the alternating current back to direct current and run it to Nova Scotia.

The scheme is cumbersome and there are probably more than a few technical problems with it. If the engineers at Nalcor started from scratch to hook to Nova Scotia, they probably wouldn’t have come up with this arrangement. That’s a good clue, by the way that what you are looking at in the current Nalcor plan is a brain fart someone had in 2010 and grafted onto the long-standing Nalcor plan to run a line to Soldier’s Pond from Labrador.

In any event, the cumbersome nature of the connection between the two highways using existing “surface roads” is why – according to the 1500 pages of agreements with Emera – Nalcor is allowed to feed Nova Scotia from the island, not Labrador. That’s right folks, Nova Scotians will likely be getting electricity that comes from Bay d’Espoir or the Exploits and Star Lake generators that the provincial government seized in 2008.

Not Labrador.

Under section 1.5 of the energy and capacity agreement, Nalcor can send Nova Scotia electricity that isn’t from Muskrat Falls:


And if that isn’t enough for you, take as gospel the words of Nalcor chief executive Ed Martin. Back in August he talked to reporters about how Nalcor planned to meet its obligations by considering all its generation as part of one big bowl. Nalcor would meet its delivery obligations from whatever part of the bowl they needed to dip into. The bowl metaphor gets a bit mangled but there’s no trouble in understanding what Martin meant.

What Con O’Brien was driving at doesn’t appear to be a myth at all. To the contrary, it seems to be a core issue for understanding what Muskrat Falls is all about and why claims by some Nalcor proponents don’t match up with the details.

With the business of transmission lines to Nova Scotia sorted out, we’ll next turn our attention to the issue of the Holyrood plant and Nalcor’s plans for thermal generation under the Muskrat Falls proposal.