Nerve centre

James McLeod
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Nalcor’s control room monitors the province’s electrical grid, 24-7

The Energy Control Centre, tucked away on the ground floor, in the back of the Nalcor building on Columbus Drive, looks sort of like what you might imagine a nuclear missile control bunker to look like.

There are a lot of computer screens and a couple of technicians who look like they’re doing very important things.

One entire wall — two storeys tall — is devoted to a massive map of the Newfoundland and Labrador electrical grid with lots of red and green blinking lights and digital numbers indicating voltage on electrical cables, generating output and demand.

This is the nerve centre of the province’s electrical grid.

There are two operators in here at all times, and they’re the ones responsible for making sure that when you flip the switch, your lights come on in the morning.

In the province’s ongoing discussion of electricity and the Muskrat Falls system, things usually get boiled down to very simple terms: a fat orange line connects a black dot marked “Muskrat Falls” in Labrador to another dot marked “St John’s”;

a red line across the Gulf of St. Lawrence represents the Maritime Link, and so on.

But in the Energy Control Centre, it quickly becomes clear that the reality is so much more


A big red digital number in the centre of the board reads “585” and that’s the exact number of megawatts that the system is using at the moment. If somebody in Mount Pearl goes to microwave their lunch, it will increase the “load” on the system ever so slightly, and as load goes up the technicians will have to compensate with slightly more power.

“You put extra load on, all of those generators will slow down a little bit, and then you know, what happens then is they’ve got to put a bit more water on the turbines and speed it back up a little bit,” says Rob Henderson, vice-president of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.

When demand increases in the winter — more people using electric heat — they need to fire up the thermal generating station at Holyrood to meet demand. That will happen any day now.

“Right now there’s no units on in Holyrood, but before long we’ll have one on. Once that goes on, it’ll sit at a fixed load,” he said. “You need to give them indication of when you need the unit on. So we would’ve told them already now that we need a unit on because the weather is starting to get cold, so they’re going through that process now of getting the units ready to come on.”

They have to know when demand is coming, and when they’ll have downtime. The highest demand is in the mornings in February, when everybody is waking up, making breakfast and turning up the heat.

The all-time high was back in February 2006, when the system hit 1,405 megawatts. They haven’t surpassed that since, but they often come close.

“We get 1390s routinely, we hit 1400s routinely, but we haven’t hit over 1,405 since 2006,” says Bob Butler, manager of system operations.

The ECC staff are basically obsessed with three things — safety, reliability and water management. They’re juggling an array of different hydro plants across multiple river systems and transmission lines criss-crossing the province. At any given time, power lines or plants might need to be turned off for maintenance, and they need to juggle that too.

Reliability, especially, is taken to impressive levels. There are sleeping quarters and a kitchen on site in case staff need to stay overnight. They have their own power generator on site, and seemingly backup systems for everything.

They even have another backup site to go to if they need to, with all the same computer equipment — minus the giant wall board — where they can go, just in case the Nalcor building burns down or something.

“We could run out and occupy another backup control centre and we’d be up and running the power system within an hour,” Butler says.

When asked where the backup control centre is, Butler affably says he could say, but “I’d have to shoot you.”

When it comes to managing a system as complex as the province’s electrical grid, they don’t mess around.

And when Muskrat Falls comes online, things get even more complex.

Typically when people talk about water management, they’re focused on how Nalcor wants to run both Churchill Falls and Muskrat Falls in a co-ordinated way on the Churchill River to maximize water usage and output during peak times.

But in reality, engineers are also managing water in various reservoirs across the province, and they’ll balance the Bay d’Espoir water against the Churchill River water to get the best bang for their buck.

“We have engineers as well that are doing modelling of the hydro reservoir system to determine where the best place is to put different units on and store water, so the operators are actually given guidelines by the engineers as to where you should be concentrating your production at any time,” Henderson says.

“Once Muskrat Falls goes in, that will be another plant that the fellas here will operate remotely, and so they’ll be controlling the output of that plant and then the flow of the power down onto the island. They’ll also be controlling the flow of power out of the island and out into the Maritimes.”

The system operators already know how to do this stuff; the Granite Canal, Upper Salmon and Bay d’Espoir hydro plants are all on the same water system, so Nalcor uses the same water three times before it finally flows into the sea.

It gets even more complex, because Nalcor’s marketing arm will enter the picture with Muskrat Falls, as they try to get the best price selling electricity into Nova Scotia and parts beyond. They can sell power on an hour-by-hour basis, when demand is high and the market price is peak.

“The marketing people are looking at the buy and sell decisions, and they would look at where the water is, as well, and get an idea of how much water we have which would generate the electricity,” Hendersons says.

“The people who are managing the reservoirs also have to know what the marketing people are planning to do.”

Twitter: TelegramJames

Organizations: Maritime Link, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.When

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Holyrood, Mount Pearl Churchill River Nova Scotia

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Recent comments

  • saelcove
    September 28, 2013 - 09:54

    you should have said government control centre

  • saelcove
    September 28, 2013 - 09:53

    you should have said government control centre

  • saelcove
    September 28, 2013 - 09:51

    you should have said government control centre

  • Maurice E. Adams
    September 28, 2013 - 07:45

    The all time high was 1,405 MW (in 2006), yet Nalcor confirms that the island's "installed NET capacity" is 1,958 MW. So we have already have 553 MW to spare (more than Holyrood's net capacity of 490 MW. Why then will ratepayers go in debt billions of dollars for 50 years too build a firm Muskrat capacity of less than 600 MW (if Quebec don't scuttle the Water Management Agreement), almost 400 of which will have to go to Nova Scotia (part for free and part at between 4 and 9 cents per KWh) when NL ratepayers have to pay the full cost of production of about 37 cents per KWh FOR THE FULL AMOUNT? Tell me how that makes sense for NL ratepayers [yes for Nova Scotia, yes for Emera, yes for Nalcor, yes for the NL government (NL ratepayers are paying the full shot so that government reaps what is essentially a hidden tax)] --- but NL ratepayers are paying in the billions for something THEY don't need --- so that others can benefit.