Nfld. & Labrador

Remember DarkNL? Andy Wells says N.L. can't prevent rolling blackouts post-Muskrat Falls

The former head of the PUB says there's no backup plan for when the province's new hydroelectric project goes down.

Former PUB head says there's no backup plan if new hydroelectric project goes down

Andy Wells, former head of the Public Utilities Board, says the provincial government doesn't have a plan for backup power if there's a problem with Muskrat Falls. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

The former head of the Public Utilities Board says when it comes to having a reliable supply of electricity, Newfoundland is no further ahead now than during DarkNL.

"If you wanted to deliberately to blow $14 billion, wreck your power system, wreck your economy, these characters could not have done a better job," Andy Wells told CBC News.

"It's a story that is sui generis: it stands alone in its uniqueness, stupidity and incompetence."

It seems we were sold a bill of goods.- Dennis Browne

"DarkNL" happened in early January 2014, when rolling blackouts were a reality in the days before and following a fierce winter storm, leaving tens of thousand of people on the island with no heat. 

Wells, head of the PUB at the time, says a proposed plan to secure electricity post-Muskrat Falls is seriously flawed.

According to Wells, consumers were led to believe if energy transmission from Labrador goes down and the Holyrood generators are decommissioned, emergency backup power would come from Nova Scotia through the Maritime Link, but he said that's not the case.

Consumer Advocate Dennis Brown says he feels the people of Newfoundland and Labrador were 'sold a bill of goods' on Muskrat Falls. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

"A system-planning document from Newfoundland Hydro in 2011 states, in the event of loss of supply on the Labrador Link there would be import from Nova Scotia — 300 megawatts." 

Wells has letters from Nalcor, dated January of this year, that indicate there's no contract with Nova Scotia for energy, there are no reports specifically addressing a 300-megawatt backup supply via the Maritime Link from Nova Scotia, and Nalcor has not directly asked Emera if it can supply 300 megawatts of backup power. 

"They clearly left the people of this province the impression that this 300 megawatts was in fact available, and I believe they deceived us," said Wells. 

Not enough transmission capacity?

Wells also said even if the province could secure 300 megawatts from Nova Scotia, the infrastructure isn't in place to get it to the Avalon Peninsula, which consumes 70 per cent of electricity on the island.

"We don't have the transmission capacity to get it into the Avalon Peninsula," said Wells.

This is a recent aerial view of the Muskrat Falls project in central Labrador. First power is forecast for late 2019. (Nalcor)

Consumer Advocate Dennis Browne said people are becoming frustrated with what they're hearing.

"It's not the Maritime link itself, it's the transmission capacity to the Avalon. They need more transmission," said Browne. 

Browne questioned whether Nova Scotia even has 300 megawatts of electricity to spare. 

"There's no 300 megawatts available. We're talking about the winter months. Everyone is at peak capacity in all the Atlantic provinces and beyond," Browne said. 

Browne said government had a responsibility to investigate the backup supply question before sanctioning the project.

"How could we get this far without realizing that there is no transmission capacity to bring electricity to the Avalon?" said Browne.

"It seems that we were sold a bill of goods. There is in reality no backup plan in place to bring electricity during the winter months when we need it most, if the Labrador link fails."

The Department of Natural Resources declined CBC's interview request, but provided a written statement that said information about the reliability of the province's power system was provided to Wells on Feb. 21 and March 5.

100 megawatts of reserve — 'if available'

"Currently, there is an agreement in place between the Nova Scotia System Operator and the Newfoundland and Labrador System Operator to provide up to 100 MW of reserve assistance, if available," reads the statement. "This allows time for sourcing additional market sources if required."

The statement also says the Interconnection Operators Agreement also provides for emergency energy, when market-based energy transactions are not available to maintain reserve requirements.

"Also, the Maritime Link is equipped with a 'frequency controller' that can provide up to 100MW to the Island almost instantaneously in the event of a loss of supply," reads the statement.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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