Stuck on the message track

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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You’ve got to feel a little bit sorry for Nalcor. They’re following the rules, staying on point and on message as they try to respond to criticism of the Muskrat Falls project. 

But the criticism just keeps coming, and Nalcor’s message — although consistent — is starting to sound repetitive.

There have been, in the last few months, more and more letters to the editor — and generally, more and more expressed public concern — about the cost of the project and, in particular, the cost implication that everyone cares about most: their own power bills.

Nalcor hasn’t ignored those concerns.

In fact, it has tried to stay ahead of them.

It’s right out of a communications textbook: Nalcor’s answers are always low-key, respectful and always repeat the message that Muskrat Falls is the lowest-cost power available to address an energy crisis it sees as looming in the province’s immediate future.

Many Nalcor letters end like this: “For additional information, we’ve published several blogs about wind which can be found on the Nalcor Leadership blog www.nalcorleader

shipblog.com.” (Sadly, the blog often includes the same information already sent out as letters to the editor, so the message seems even more like simple repetition.)

And it’s not just letters: Nalcor’s boss, Ed Martin, has made himself available for everything from mornings on open-line radio to one-on-one meetings with critics to explain the company’s position. Availability isn’t the problem.

The problem is, the letter-writers keep coming at the issue from different directions, barbarians storming the Nalcor castle from the front and back, above and beneath, and that leaves the Nalcor responses — “Muskrat Falls is the best of the two major options we considered” — looking stilted and formulaic.

Not only that, but as in many bureaucracies, it takes a while for Nalcor to respond.

When it answers a letter-writer five days after the letter appeared in the paper, that’s a major rear-guard action.

It’s not helped by the fact that the responses are seamless but remarkably similar — a variety of people write or respond on Nalcor’s behalf, and magically, they all sound exactly the same.

The mantra’s getting stale.

It’s not alway on point, either.

Faced with an editorial that points out that Hydro-Québec is bringing 2,000 megawatts of wind power onstream at 8.7 cents a kilowatt hour (and asking how Muskrat Falls can compete with power that will cost 14.3 cents a kilowatt hour) Nalcor responds that wind power isn’t a dependable option and that it isn’t being considered right now.

It doesn’t answer the competitiveness question, nor does it have a clear answer for why Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will have to pay 14.3 cents a kilowatt hour for power.

Meanwhile, outside the province, Muskrat Falls power will sell for what the market will bear — and that’s far lower than 14.3 cents, and will be for the foreseeable future, even before you start factoring in the costs of wheeling power through the grids in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and everywhere else.

Now, you can expect that letter-writers and other concerned citizens will start to question whether natural gas might be a more effective way to generate electrical power for the upcoming demand, and whether the cost of a Grand Banks-based natural gas operation — costed out at something around $1 billion several years ago — might not be a far cheaper option than the $6.2 billion it will cost to build Muskrat Falls.

The answer to that? Be ready for “natural gas wasn’t among the two successful scenarios that passed our pre-screening process, and of those two, Muskrat Falls is the lowest-cost alternative.” (Sorry to put words in your mouth, Mr. Nalcor, but I’ve heard those words too many times.)

You can’t complain that the utility isn’t proactive and you can’t say it’s not trying to get the message out.

Nalcor tweets, it Facebooks, it blogs — they’re trying, for sure.

Nalcor’s on message, without a doubt. But that message doesn’t seem to be hitting the mark.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Hydro-Québec

Geographic location: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick

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  • Anon
    July 27, 2011 - 15:35

    "Now, you can expect that letter-writers and other concerned citizens will start to question whether natural gas might be a more effective way to generate electrical power for the upcoming demand, and whether the cost of a Grand Banks-based natural gas operation — costed out at something around $1 billion several years ago — might not be a far cheaper option than the $6.2 billion it will cost to build Muskrat Falls." ------------------------------> That would be the biggest mistake in this provinces history. The fishery might suck now but as soon as we start cramming billions of gallons of Fracking fluid into the ground beneath the grandbanks, you can forget about any kind of fisheries recovery. 600 + Known carcinogenic chemicals in our food and water? Not worth the gas.

  • Frank M
    July 26, 2011 - 11:07

    The Yvonne Jones Liberals are now saying that Nalcor is the impediment to government answering questions on the Upper Churchill deal. I am curious as to what the Dean MacDonald Liberals think about Danny's deal. Strangely quiet they are on this.

  • dgr
    July 26, 2011 - 10:31

    Undersea cables can only transmitt 500 magawatts of power. So we would need 4 cables for Gull Island power and 10 cables for Upper Churchill power. Undersea cables are expensive verus overland towers.

    • stanley
      July 26, 2011 - 10:42

      undersea cables transmitt energy to other markets that can generate revenue, which back the costs, and on top of that keep generating revenue as long as the river flows. The potential economic benefit from this assets seems to be conitnually left out of the equation by the critics. Yes, I say "potential" because there is uncertainty about demand and competition, but you cannot leave it out of the analysis. Also, refurbishing holyrood or building more wind turbines do not generate outside market revenue. So let's say costs are roughly the same either way, then doesn't the project with "potential" revenues clearly win?

  • Boyd
    July 26, 2011 - 10:22

    Russel you have indicated in the editiorial that the cost of Muskrat energy is $0.143 per kilowtthour is incorrect, the blended rate that is estimated to supply energy to the customer in 2017 is $0.143, isolated energy on the island Cost $0.06 and this source will supply 80% of the energy requirements in 2017. With Muskrat only needed to supply the remainig 20% the actual cost of Muskrat energy must be in the vicinty of $0.30 to have a blended rate of $0.143, think about it, and also think about how underestimated numbers will effect this $0.143?

  • Maurice E. Adams
    July 26, 2011 - 09:16

    I still can't understand why wind can't do the job we need. The 27 turbines we have now are replacing 300,000 barrels of oil a day. That's already 25% of what Holyrood used last year. With a bit more wind ----- Holyrood would use virtually NO OIL, as it would remain virtually in standby mode forever. High cost of oil problem SOLVED. High pollution problem SOLVED. Multi-billion dollar debt problem SOLVED. Hundreds of millions per year in debt servicing costs SOLVED. Electricity to Nova Scotia subsidized, paid for by NL problem SOLVED. Risk of catastrophic sleet damage to 1,100 kilometer transmission line SOLVED. etc. etc. etc.

  • stanley
    July 26, 2011 - 08:25

    A benefit I see to Muskrat is that the link to the rest of canada will make it easier for Gull Island to come on stream and then the Upper Churchill will have link outside of Quebec, who may not be very cooprerative when the time comes to wheel power through, since they are a competitor. I'm also not sure why selling the excess power is getting such criticism. After supplying our own energy needs which have been forecasted to increase, any excess sold, even for a penny, brings in extra revenue to the project, which in turn can be used to reduce our rates. So selling excess Muskrat power will help reduce our rates, even if it's for less than what NL pays, which apparently is some boogyman thought. Then Gull Island coming onstream and the excess revenues generated reduces rates even further, and Upper Churchill sales can reduce rates even further from that! Wind power cannot provide this. I hear criticism that the govermnent is not investing oil money for future generations. Isn't lower power rates proof that it is? Now, of course this depends on if there is a demand for the excess power. Will the eastern US need more energy in the future with a growing population? Probably. But if not, Muskrat is needed for NL's energy needs, and it is a clean, renewable energy. I'm not sure how you can be against clean energy either, with the other options costing as much or more so the rates would be the same or higher. People need to start using their heads and not simply argue because they don't like PCs. The liberals are simply trying to the model of New Brunswick and their hydro deal here in NL. Basically the opposition to the deal brought down the government, and that's the strategy here. All the answers are there for Muskrat Falls. It's unfortunate many of the critics don't want to listen or find the answers too repetitive.