22 July 2015

Reality check for the Ontarians, please #nlpoli

If nothing else, media coverage about energy talks between Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador shows just how much people don’t know about what is going on in the country.

Not a crowd for half measures,  the National Post ran a story on Monday morning that was rife with basic factual mistakes.  They even started the piece with a statement that had two facts in it, both of which were simply not true.

“Ontario is the latest customer to line up to purchase Newfoundland and Labrador’s growing supply of hydroelectricity…”

Ontario isn’t buying any electricity from Newfoundland and Labrador.  The two provinces are talking about what might theoretically happen at an undetermined point in the future.

That’s because Newfoundland and Labrador doesn’t have a growing supply of hydroelectricity, no matter what some people might think.

It has one incredibly expensive project under development.  And if a court case in Quebec goes the wrong way for Newfoundland and Labrador’s government-owned energy company, the hideously  expensive Muskrat Falls project may not even be able to produce much more electricity reliably than Nalcor has promised to give free of charge to Emera in Nova Scotia.

Even if Nalcor wins the lawsuit,  they won;t be able to get the full capacity out of Muskrat Falls.  News stories that talk about the wrong maximum capacity  of 800 MW  even the correct 824 megawatts don’t realise the plant is only expected to reliably produce the same amount of electricity as a plant of 560 MW or thereabouts.

It’s a water flow thing, as SRBP explained on Tuesday..

And so it is that the provincial governments in Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador have set up a team of officials to jibber jabber about stuff.  At the moment, Newfoundland and Labrador doesn’t have any spare electricity to sell on a long-term basis.  They have small amounts available here and there, especially in the summer time. 

We know this because Prince Edward Island was looking for a reliable source of back-up electricity. They checked out Nalcor and took a pass.  Nalcor can’t make any firm commitments for power from Muskrat beyond what they have offered to Emera in Nova Scotia free of charge.

Ontario is in the market for 500 megawatts worth of power, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail, the only newspaper Newfoundland nationalists believe. The Ottawa Citizen tells us that the Ontario energy minister wants to run the electricity from Newfoundland and Labrador down the line into Nova Scotia, across the United States and up through New York to Quebec. 

This will be cheaper,  according to the Citizen, than Quebec where “the big fat transmission wires that connect the two provinces are close to capacity and it’s really expensive to build more.”  Let us ponder this for a second.

In order to get 500 MW from Newfoundland and Labrador, Nalcor would have to build some kind of generator in Labrador.  The most likely site is at Gull Island.  where Nalcor has plans for generating capacity of up to 2, 250 MW.

Let us now look at a map.


The route the folks at the Citizen are talking about starts at the red dot in Labrador by the word “Falls”.  That’s roughly where Gull Island is.  The route they propose goes east onto the island of Newfoundland.  It goes all the way to a spot called Soldier’s Pond, just west of St. John’s.  There Nalcor will convert the electricity from direct current – ideal for long-range transmission – and convert it to the alternating current used on the island.

They will run the electricity back to a spot on the western part of the island.  There they will convert it from AC back to DC and send it along the lines underwater to Nova Scotia.  Then the electricity would have to go from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick,  Maine,  New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and then back up into Ontario either at the western end of its link to New York or somewhere long the border between Kingston and Quebec.

“The generation and the transmission is so far advanced,” [Ontario energy minister Bob] Chiarelli said, sounding a touch awed over the phone from Halifax, where he and his Newfoundland and Labrador counterpart Derrick Dalley made the agreement at a national meeting of energy and mining ministers. It is, he said, “game changing.”

If you look soberly at the idea,  we are not talking about games at all.   No matter how magical the technology may seem,  it’s impossible to shunt the electricity all that way through three Canadian provinces and four American states without huge costs. 

That’s before we consider the electricity would have to go all the way from Labrador to the easternmost end of the country before heading back to Ontario. “Transmitting electricity long distances is always a challenge”, as the Citizen story notes.  “some leaks, and the longer the journey the worse the loss.” 

Well,  this Ontario idea would involving shipping the electricity about 1500 kilometres from Labrador to St. John’s.  Then, they would have to go more than 3,000 kilometres back to Ontario via the longest route possible. In between they’d convert from DC to AC and back again.

Somehow that would be cheaper and easier than building a new line along the shortest distance, namely through Quebec.  Go back and follow that dotted line along the map.

Hang on a second.

What’s that big red starry thing right along the shortest route to Ontario from Labrador?

It’s the maximum capacity of the link between the island of Newfoundland and Cape Breton.

500 MW.

That’s precisely how much Ontario wants.

Small problem.

Emera will get 170 MW free of charge.  That means there isn’t the capacity on the line to handle Ontario’s demand.

Someone will have to build more capacity.

Which is, curiously enough, exactly the issue in Quebec that Chiarelli supposedly wanted to avoid.

It’s also exactly what Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said last week when asked about moving electricity from Labrador to market.   Capacity and cost.

Newfoundland and Labrador energy minister Derrick Dalley pointed to Couillard’s positive tone.  That’s actually quite funny given that capacity and cost was exactly what has been at stake in relations between Dalley’s administration and Hydro-Quebec since 2003. They wanted all the capacity and none of the cost. 

Not surprisingly, the Conservatives’ attitude caused a great deal of grief in relations between Nalcor and Hydro-Quebec.  Danny Williams made all sorts of false accusations and his energy corporation launched a string of expensive and unsuccessful lawsuits against Hydro-Quebec. 

But ultimately the whole thing came to down to a simple issue of transmission capacity and cost.  There was never any great French conspiracy to shag the Newfs. That was completely Williams’ invention to distract from his own games. The local media and public ate up the all-too-familiar tales because it was easier to accept the foolishness and ignore the evidence.

Now that insanity has apparently infected people in Ontario.  Instead of Laurentian plots, though,  the Ontarians are looking to one of the most expensive sources of electricity – the Lower Churchill – and an absolutely ludicrous transmission route in the belief it can produce the cheapest electricity of all. 

Ontarians don;t need electricity.  They need to give their heads a good shake.  They need a reality check.