Officials at Nalcor Energy remain confident that electricity from Muskrat Falls will be transmitted over the new Labrador-Island Link "at varying levels" next year, despite serious and strongly worded warnings from an expert consultant.
In a statement, Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall said a plan to energize the line — which will bring electricity from the Muskrat Falls generating station to Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula — in 2020, "remains our current schedule."
But a consulting firm hired by the province's Public Utilities Board to monitor progress on the project is casting serious doubt on that plan.
The Liberty Consulting Group of Lebanon, Pa., has been providing quarterly monitoring reports to the PUB on the transition to operations at Muskrat, and says vibration and jamming issues with what are called synchronous condensers and problems with complex computer software could mean even more delays.
Persistent, long-standing problems
Liberty's Nov. 15 report is blunt, and rather scathing:
"For a project whose schedule should be approaching completion, the persistence of long-standing problems, the emergence of new ones, and a continuing lack of work completion are troubling," the report's summary states.
For a project whose schedule should be approaching completion, the persistence of long-standing problems, the emergence of new ones, and a continuing lack of work completion are troubling. - Liberty Consulting Group
Nalcor hopes to generate power from the first of four turbines at Muskrat as early as January.
But it's now unlikely that power will be transmitted to Newfoundland any time soon.
The Liberty report says the new link, which will connect Muskrat to Newfoundland's power grid, will "fail to enter service this winter."
What's more, its operation in the winter of 2021 "is now becoming less certain."
At issue is a contract with General Electric for the development of what's called control and protection software to operate the link. The company has missed deadlines to deliver the software, and Liberty's report details a "large number of software problems" that must be corrected.
GE has committed to delivering a new version sometime in December, with testing to begin in January.
But Liberty's experts are skeptical.
"Even if that optimism proves well founded, subsequent LIL commissioning will delay reliable operation to some point past this coming winter. Continued optimism about dates that have continually slipped for long periods needs more of a foundation than management has provided to us," the report states.
And the software is not the only issue that could further hobble a publicly funded project that is already billions over budget and years behind schedule.
And they're raising concerns with Liberty experts about whether the link will be reliable, even when it is in operation.
An ongoing need for Holyrood as a backup
"A number of transmission technical concerns continue to remain open, leaving uncertain whether, even after operation of the LIL, contingencies on the transmission system will require substantial Avalon Peninsula generation to remain available to avoid underfrequency load shedding and rolling outages."
In simple terms, that sentence is saying the oil-fired generating station at Holyrood, which is supposed to be decommissioned once Muskrat is completed, may be required longer than expected in order to avoid unexpected blackouts.
Liberty cited recently discovered problems with three synchronous condensers at the elaborate switching station at Soldiers Pond. These condensers are critical to the power system, but one unit has vibration issues, while the other two units won't rotate at all.
Liberty says Nalcor management is "not prepared to rule out the risk that major work and extended delay may occur."
Liberty says the cause of the condenser problems "remain uncertain," and potential fixes "have only conceptual solutions identified."
"Should these issues continue into next June, they may prevent or significantly restrict power flows over the LIL during commissioning, and could have an impact on the power flows during the 2020/2021 winter," the report states.
Liberty is also at odds with Nalcor over access to oversight reports prepared by two independent consultants, which are monitoring the work of General Electric.
Nalcor has refused to provide written copies of these reports to Liberty, and "the continued lack of full transparency on these reports as schedules lengthen is concerning," Liberty states.
But Nalcor says it's unable to share written copies of the reports because its contractual agreements with General Electric prohibit it.
However, Nalcor said it provides Liberty and the PUB with "an overview and description of the information and areas of concern raised by and outlined" in the reports.
"We will continue to provide Liberty with information regarding the issues on LIL while maintaining compliance with our legal obligations,"' the Nalcor statement reads.