Newfoundland projects fuels hope of east/west grid

NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR - A consortium of major power-industry companies announced a $500 billion (US) project in Munich to build large solar-thermal power plants in the Sahara Desert and high-voltage transmission lines to carry the clean electricity to energy-hungry Europe.

The so-called Desertec Initiative is hugely ambitious, and while it will no doubt be a tough sell, there's serious talk of moving ahead.

We've heard similar chatter in the United States, such as oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens' call to spend $150 billion developing wind projects in the U.S. Midwest to supply power to other parts of the country. There's also rising interest in the creation of a solar power zone in California and other southwest states that could delivery electricity to the east.

In Canada, we've talked for years about creating an east-west grid that could tap clean hydroelectric resources in Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec, and carry it to jurisdictions in need. Ontario could certainly find itself needy, given that in about five years all our coal plants will be phased out and older nuclear plants will need to be retired or refurbished.

But we have made little progress on getting such a national infrastructure project going, let alone placed firmly on the federal agenda. Provincial and federal politicians occasionally mention the need, but the leadership required to push it forward is sadly lacking.

This hasn't dissuaded Nalcor Energy Corp. of Newfoundland and Labrador from preparing for a day of action.

The province-owned energy company has spent several years researching and refining a plan to develop its Lower Churchill project – a 3,000-megawatt, multibillion-dollar hydroelectric venture at Gull Island and Muskrat Falls in Labrador.

It has applied for access to the Quebec electricity grid so power from Lower Churchill can flow into Ontario and beyond, and it has developed alternative underwater transmission routes that would take the power to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and further along to the U.S. Northeast.

The company has also inked a deal with the local Innu that could be finalized within the next year.

All the pieces are coming together, says Ed Martin, president and chief executive of Nalcor, who was in Toronto to meet with government and electricity-sector officials.

"Who else in the country is doing what we're doing?" he says during coffee at the downtown Marriott. "We're not standing back saying can this happen. We're finding out exactly how things work, what the realities are, and we're stepping up to the plate and paying for engineering studies in Quebec. We're finding answers for what other people are just talking about."

Martin describes Nalcor as being in a "good place." It has cash flow from three major oil and gas projects that can finance the large capital costs of Lower Churchill. The province wisely invested a portion of money from its non-renewable resources to develop renewable power for future generations.

In addition to hydroelectric resources, Nalcor figures it can also develop 5,000 megawatts of wind projects in the largely uninhabited area surrounding Lower Churchill.

Lower Churchill, as far as Martin is concerned, is a project that should have been developed 40 years ago and remains today the most economical energy project in North America.

"Nothing is going to beat it," he says, predicting that over the next few months Nalcor will be ready to sit down and – after years of preparation – finally have serious discussions with potential customers.

"At that point I'd expect Ontario to say, ‘Let's talk,’" he says.

Ontario would be foolish not to. Nalcor figures it could get the Lower Churchill facility pumping out its first electrons as early as 2016, and that power would be available for more than 100 years. We're talking highly flexible clean power, that can be dispatched quickly when needed.

The added bonus, of course, is that it's emission-free.

"We're exploring it," says Ben Chin, a spokesman for the Ontario Power Authority.

Chin said the attractiveness of doing a deal with Nalcor comes down to the cost of the electricity from Lower Churchill and the ability of the company to transmit it across Quebec.

Martin doesn't see the Quebec issue as a major stumbling block, as regulation requires the province to allow access to its grid in return for a set tariff. Hydro Quebec and Nalcor are just working out the details.

Any costs to Ontario would build in the price of that tariff, but what's most important is how that final cost would compare to the next-best alternative.

Ontario will need to spend billions of dollars to expand Hydro One's transmission system in order to tap its own northern hydroelectric resources.

To import hydroelectricity from Manitoba would require an even more costly and aggressive project requiring many years to complete and dozens of separate agreements with aboriginal groups.

There's always nuclear, but that's proving increasingly expensive, risky and inflexible for the type of power Ontario needs. It also takes 10 years to build and comes with waste-management problems that are not yet resolved. Ontario could do a deal to import more power from Quebec, but that needn't preclude a separate deal with Nalcor.

What's clear is that Nalcor is ready to sit down and do business, and it's being open about how any potential deals could be structured.

"We're not closing our eyes to anything," says Martin, acknowledging that Ontario has many options under consideration. "We understand that we have to beat the next-best alternatives. If it costs you X amount to build here, here or here, just let us know what that is and we can probably do a little better."

Martin adds that Ontario doesn't need to worry much about lost job opportunities.

Nalcor estimates about two-thirds of the direct and indirect work will be done outside Newfoundland and Labrador, with much of it coming to Ontario's steel industry and manufacturing sector.

The devil is obviously in the details. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, when he served as Ontario's energy minister, warned that such long-term agreements are always tricky to negotiate.

"I don't want my grandchildren to look back in 20 years and say `What were they thinking?'" he said in 2006.

Martin will have to convince Ontario that both sides can walk away happy. And, from what I could gather, he's quite determined to try.



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