Nfld. & Labrador

Employee fatigue, software bugs responsible for new Muskrat delays, says Marshall

Nalcor Energy has announced more delays for the Muskrat Falls project, with first power expected in February, at about the same time as interim computer software will be delivered for the Labrador-Island Link.

First turbine won't be energized until February, while Labrador-Island Link also delayed

Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall announced Friday that there are more delays for the Muskrat Falls project. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Nalcor Energy has announced more delays for the Muskrat Falls project, with first power expected in February, at about the same time as interim computer software will be delivered for the Labrador-Island Link.

And there's less certainty that any Labrador power will be delivered to Newfoundland this winter as the delays mount, meaning reliance on the oil-burning and polluting thermal generator at Holyrood will continue.

CEO Stan Marshall says part of the reason for the latest setbacks can be attributed to employee fatigue and computer software problems in which "progress is not quite as fast as we hoped."

All or portions of the three synchronous condensers at the Soldiers Pond switchyard can be seen in this Nalcor photo. (Nalcor Energy)

In an interview Friday with CBC, Marshall said employees have been working long hours trying to complete installation of the first of four turbines at Muskrat Falls, and create the interim software to operate the transmission line that will deliver Muskrat power along the 1,100-kilometre link from Labrador to the Avalon Peninsula.

First power at Muskrat was previously scheduled for January, which itself was an extension from earlier targets, but Marshall confirmed Friday that it will now be delayed by up to a month.

The control and protection software being developed by General Electric to operate the DC line to Soldiers Pond is also delayed until February.

On Dec. 13, NL Hydro sent a letter to the Public Utilities Board, saying the test software would be available on Jan. 19. Again, repeated deadlines to create the software have come and gone, with Marshall travelling to England this fall to try to move the process along.

When asked about the delays, Marshall said workers "need to take a few days off" over the Christmas holidays.

"Fatigue is a problem," he said.

Despite the problems, Marshall still says Muskrat Falls will meet the current target of full commercial power — 824 megawatts — by late 2020, and he continues to express confidence in GE's ability to deliver the final software by June of next year.

"Everybody is gaining confidence and I share that," he said.

But there's less certainty that Marshall's pledge to deliver Labrador power to Newfoundland "at varying levels" this winter will materialize.

Marshall says he believes it's still possible, but offered this condition: "Until we get (the software) loaded and we get a feel for it, it's going to be uncertain."

But Marshall said he's "really confident" that the first turbine at Muskrat will be energized in the first quarter of 2020.

"I do not see any significant delay in completing the actual generation."

As for the three malfunctioning synchronous condensers at Solders Pond, Marshall said the bearings that allow the heavy rotors to spin have been sent back to the manufacturer for "re-processing."

Hydro documents show that one of the condensers — used to keep the power line stable and voltages consistent — vibrates at high speed, while the other two fail to rotate at all.

Operators are pictured at the Soldiers Pond switchyard in June 2018. (CBC)

Experts are scrambling to determine the cause of the problem, but Marshall said it's most likely a failure in the bearings.

Marshall also responded to a troubling assessment by Liberty, an independent consultant that released a report to the Public Utilities Board last month on efforts to integrate the Labrador-Island Link into Newfoundland's power grid.

Liberty raised serious doubts about those efforts, and questioned whether the link would even be ready for the winter of 2021.

"If you're a consultant, you always err on being more cautious, because there's no downside for you," said Marshall.

"Everybody has to be critical, but someone has to get the job done, and that's what we're trying to do."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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