Nfld. & Labrador

Beware of live lines as Nalcor moves closer to history-making moment

Nalcor Energy has begun energizing 1,600 kilometres of new transmission lines and other assets, and is warning people to be careful.

Testing underway on the transmission line that will bring power from Labrador to Newfoundland

Nalcor Energy is urging caution as it begins to energize and test new transmission lines that will soon bring electricity from Labrador to the island of Newfoundland. (Submitted by Nalcor Energy)

Nalcor Energy has begun testing and energizing 1,600 kilometres of new transmission lines and other assets, and is urging caution from the public as it gets closer to making history in the coming weeks.

The province's energy corporation issued a safety advisory on Thursday, asking people to keep a safe distance from the new infrastructure, as they would any transmission line or substation.

That's because construction of new lines and related equipment from Churchill Falls in western Labrador to Soldiers Pond on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula is now complete.

"The focus on the project has really been construction up to this point," said Steve Follett, who manages the transmission side of the Lower Churchill Project on behalf of Nalcor.

"We're really entering a new phase whereby a lot of the equipment is being regularly energized, so these assets should be treated with the same caution as you would treat any other electrical asset."

Work is underway to ensure it will be ready to deliver power from the iconic Churchill Falls generating station to Soldiers Pond by mid-summer.

Electricity from Labrador will flow to Soldiers Pond on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula along a new direct current line, and will be converted to alternating current at this switchyard. (Nalcor Energy)

Once testing is complete, hydroelectricity from Labrador could be used to power homes, businesses and industry in Newfoundland by late fall or early 2019.

"It's a very exciting time for the project team and for all the contractors working on the project," Follett added.

"This is the early stages of what will represent power ultimately coming from Churchill Falls through the transmission system to St. John's."

In April, Nalcor energized the two 250-kilometre power lines from Churchill Falls to Muskrat Falls, which are known as the Labrador Transmission Assets. 

And this week, it began energizing and testing the 1,100-kilometre Labrador-Island Link from Muskrat Falls to Soldiers Pond.

Officials say the work is being done in phases until each section of the line, including the subsea Strait of Belle Isle line from Southern Labrador to the Northern Peninsula, is ready to deliver power.

'A positive move forward'

Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady called it a "positive move forward" for the province's rapidly growing energy infrastructure Friday.

She said it's "very significant" for the island portion of the province, which will soon be able to replace costly diesel generated power at the Holyrood generating station with cheaper hydro power from Churchill Falls.

The approaching milestone comes as ratepayers in Newfoundland continue to brace for a dramatic increase in utility costs, as work continues on the over-budget and behind schedule Muskrat Falls generating station in central Labrador.

Nalcor has said rates will double once Muskrat Falls is complete, and the push to transmit Churchill Falls power to the island as soon as possible is part of an effort to help ease the pain for ratepayers, at least in the short-term.

The Churchill Falls generating station produces nearly 5,500 megawatts of power, most of which is sold to Hydro-Quebec.

Some 3,200 transmission towers like this one were erected as part of the $3.4 billion Labrador-Island Link from Muskrat Falls to Soldiers Pond. (Nalcor Energy)

Nalcor has what's called a "recapture block" of roughly 300 megawatts that it used for energy needs in Labrador, with the remainder sold on the North American market for between two and three cents per kilowatt hour.

The cost to produce power at Holyrood, meanwhile, is roughly 13 cents.

So much of that block will soon be redirected to Newfoundland ahead of completion of Muskrat Falls late next year, and full power in 2020.

Customers will continue to pay the standard domestic rate — 11.9 cents/kw at the present time — while savings realized from lower generation costs will be poured into what Nalcor is calling an off-island deferral account.

Nalcor says it could generate $175 million over a two-year period, and this will be used to blunt the rate shock for customers.

But this deferral account has not yet been approved by the Public Utilities Board, which regulates electric utilities in the province, with critics of Muskrat Falls saying it is "contrary to normal regulatory practice."

And critics say the recall power is not a long-term solution for rate mitigation, since it won't be needed after Muskrat Falls is energized.

Some have estimated that hundreds of millions in additional revenue will be needed yearly to cover the debt from Muskrat Falls. Critics like David Vardy suggest "rate mitigation is not possible" because of the province's dire fiscal situation, and his assertion that demand for electricity will shrink as rates increase.

Muskrat Falls, meanwhile, was 80 per cent complete as of March, according to an update provided by Nalcor.