Nfld. & Labrador

Muskrat Falls power this winter? Nalcor CEO updates on project's software struggles

If all goes as planned, the biggest technical challenge facing the Muskrat Falls project could be conquered by early next year, and closely followed by the first delivery of power from Muskrat Falls to Newfoundland.

Stan Marshalls says first Muskrat turbine to be energized next month, and ready to supply power in January

This is the spillway and north dam at Muskrat Falls, pictured in late September. (Nalcor Energy)

If all goes as planned, the biggest technical challenge facing the Muskrat Falls project could be conquered by early next year, and followed closely by the first delivery of power from Muskrat Falls to Newfoundland.

That was one of the key points made by Nalcor Energy CEO Stan Marshall during a wide-ranging discussion with reporters in St. John's Thursday, as he gave an update on the controversial hydroelectric project.

Marshall said construction on the project is essentially complete, with efforts in 2020 to be focused on installing the four turbines at the generating station at Muskrat, and some critical electrical and mechanical work.

The target is full commercial power at the end of next year.

The project is already billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, the subject of an expensive and drawn-out public inquiry, and is also at the centre of a review by the Public Utilities Board as it explores ways to keep electricity rates from doubling in the Muskrat era.

Now, the No. 1 priority of Nalcor and its contractor, General Electric, is to develop the complex computer software needed to operate both lines — known as bi-pole — on the Labrador-Island Link, which will deliver power from central Labrador to Soldiers Pond on the Avalon Peninsula.

The first of four turbines at Muskrat Falls is shown in this image provided by Nalcor Energy. This turbine, capable of producing 206 megawatts of electricity, could be energized next month. (Nalcor Energy)

GE 'picking up the pace'

An earlier version of the software was used to operate a single line on the link last winter, allowing Nalcor to import electricity from the Upper Churchill generating station to Newfoundland, and save millions of dollars in fuel costs at the Holyrood generating station.

Last spring, Nalcor shut down the link so GE could focus on its software struggles. And last week, Marshall made a special visit to GE's facility in England, and came away feeling a little more positive about the challenge.

"They're picking up the pace. They've got a lot of resources to it. We are without question now their No. 1 priority. So I was pleased, pleased that things are going well," he said.

The CEO expects a new version of the software to be available by the end of this year, and ready for testing in January. But like any new software, Marshall said it could take a few years to work out all the bugs.

"I'd say in a couple of years you'll have — should have — a pretty reliable system."

The long-delayed computer software needed to operate the Labrador-Island Link from Muskrat Falls in Labrador to Soldiers Pond on the Avalon Peninsula could be ready by this winter, says Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall. (Submitted by Nalcor Energy)

The timing might be fortuitous, since the arrival of new software could coincide with another historic milestone: first power at Muskrat.

Marshall said turbine No. 1, capable of producing 206 megawatts of electricity, could be energized in late November, and be ready to deliver electricity early in 2020.

If the stars align, it's conceivable that both Muskrat and Upper Churchill power could be flowing to Newfoundland this winter, but Marshall urged caution, saying there are no guarantees.

"There are risks," he said.

Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall gave reporters an update on the Muskrat Falls project, indicating that it's possible Muskrat power could be flowing to Newfoundland this winter. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Meanwhile, Marshall is sticking with the $12.7 billion price tag for construction and interest during construction for Muskrat.

That hasn't changed in more than two years, despite some serious setbacks such as the removal of a key contractor, Astaldi Canada, and delays like those experienced by GE.

Marshall said he's not able to give "absolute assurance" that the cost won't increase, but added: "All I know is that's the best estimate I have right now."

Read more articles 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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