A Nalcor Energy schematic of the Muskrat Falls project.

The Muskrat Falls megaproject that is already more than two years late in delivering hydroelectricity to Nova Scotia needed to meet renewable energy goals has hit another series of speed bumps. 

Work on the additional two generating units needed to deliver hydro from Labrador to Nova Scotia will take a month longer than forecast a month ago, calling into question whether this province will receive any power by July 1st. That was the latest ETA given by Nova Scotia Power to the regulator here.

The details are outlined in a report filed late Friday afternoon by Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro with the regulator, the Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities.

The report indicated that Unit 2 had to have re-designed bolts installed between its inner and intermediate head covers. Upon further inspection by the contractor, named Andritz, defects were found in some welds on the head covers. 

“These welds are now deemed critical and now require rework,” said the report submitted by Newfoundland Labrador Hydro. “Re-welding of the affected stiffener plate welds is now under way. Andritz is also undertaking further analysis to confirm if any other welds require inspection and rework. Off-line commissioning of Unit 2 will resume after Andritz corrects this issue.”

The report goes on to say Units 1, 3, and 4 will also be inspected to see if there are flaws in welds. Although Unit 1 is operating now, Nova Scotia will not get power delivered until Units 2 and 3 also come online.

“Labrador Churchill Project also noted in the February 2021 monthly update that delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic and design modifications required for the head cover bolts have created schedule risk for Unit 2 and a subsequent schedule risk to Unit 3. The schedule for both units has shifted by one month.”

The emergence of the UK coronavirus variant in Newfoundland last month means workers arriving on the Labrador job site must quarantine for a week before they start work. 

The steady flow of hydro to Nova Scotia depends on the successful commissioning of Unit 2 and Unit 3 at Muskrat Falls. Unit 1 is operating now and Nova Scotia received first power from it back in December, the equivalent of taking a car for a test-drive. Nova Scotia needs that car to be running smoothly before taking delivery of hydroelectricity that will supply between 10 and possibly 20% of what the province requires over the next 35 years. 

That said, Nova Scotia Power is downplaying any concern about further delays when asked about the latest update from Newfoundland.

“The timeline in this filing is very similar to the last update.  We do not believe it will have a material impact on our purchase or generation decisions,” said Jacqueline Foster, senior communications advisor for Nova Scotia Power, late Friday.

Meanwhile, as it waits for Muskrat Falls to come online Nova Scotia Power is purchasing more fossil fuels (mostly natural gas),biomass, and imports. In May, the McNeil government extended the deadline by two years, from 2020 until 2022, before Nova Scotia Power will have to generate 40% of electricity from renewable sources. The current amount of electricity sourced from renewables fluctuates between 23- 26%.

Transmission issues

There are other outstanding issues with the megaproject that could result in hydro to Nova Scotia being delayed until at least the end of the year. The Labrador-Island Link (LIL) will carry electricity from the generating facility at Muskrat Falls to the island of Newfoundland. It’s an 1,100 km, 900 megawatt High Voltage direct current (HVdc) transmission line running from central Labrador, crossing the Strait of Belle Isle, and extending to Soldiers Pond on the Avalon Peninsula.

Trial operations on the Labrador-Island Link will resume on March 11, after the transmission line required two weeks of repairs last month. Ongoing glitches with software provided by General Electric to control the flow of power over the high-voltage transmission lines has resulted in temporary software being installed. The final version of the GE software is due to arrive in June and be fully commissioned by the end of August. If all goes according to plan. 

“The Lower Churchill Project continues to monitor General Electric’s Grid’s performance as schedule slippage for the Final Bipole Software remains high,” says the report to the regulator in Newfoundland and Labrador. “The Lower Churchill Project has currently forecasted the completion of Trial Operations on October 22, 2021.”

Whether substantial amounts of power could flow to Nova Scotia before October 22 is unclear. Hopefully Nova Scotia Power will provide more information Monday. Nova Scotia ratepayers are not responsible for the cost of the Muskrat Falls project, which stands at over $10.2 billion. As customers, we continue to wait anxiously for delivery.

A smiling white woman with short silver hair wearing dark rimmed glasses and a bright blue blazer.

Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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