The right time for Muskrat Falls

Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Since the last provincial election, there has been a barrage of written comments regarding construction of the Muskrat Falls hydro project. While the interest in provincial affairs is in itself admirable, some of the comments appear to be contrary to that of experts working at Memorial University and Nalcor.

If memory serves me well, these experts have work experience in a variety of disciplines. In addition, experts from Manitoba Hydro also provided a second opinion. Many included individuals who have 30 to 40 years experience in their respective fields.

It should be noted the members of the province’s Public Utilities Board, while knowledgeable, are not experts in the energy sector. In order to express an honest opinion, the PUB would also need consult with an outside expert such as Manitoba Hydro.

In general, the basic conclusions reached were: the province will require additional energy if it is to meet future projected demand; energy generated from hydro projects is, in general, the most cost-effective method; the Muskrat Falls hydro project is capable of generating sufficient energy to meet future provincial demand; and revenues realized from the sale of energy in excess of provincial needs can be sold to assist in the pay down of the initial capital costs. So why has so many people expressed concern with construction of the Muskrat Falls hydro project?

The major concern, by far, appears to be related to costs, including: the high initial capital cost of the project, an assumed increase in provincial debt and the suggestion that there will be a substantial rate increase in energy cost to consumers. Should the implementation of a public project, such as the Muskrat Falls project, be based solely on cost?

Vale Inco is a privately owned firm. The prime objective of a private firm is to increase the asset value of the firm and/or pay out a reasonable annual rate of return to shareholders. The Vale Inco project at Voisey’s Bay and Long Harbour is estimated to cost more than the costs required to construct the Muskrat Falls project.

The initial price paid for the privilege for the mining rights at Voisey’s Bay was $4.3 billion. The projected costs to construct the hydrometallurgical plant at Long Harbour is approximately $2.9 billion. An Innovation Centre was to be constructed at Memorial University costing approximately $20 million. In order to be viable, the Vale Inco project(s) needs to generate sufficient revenues from sale of its mining products to: amortize its initial costs at Voisey’s Bay and Long Harbour; finance its annual operating and maintenance costs; pay royalties and taxes, etc. Profit occurs when total revenues from the sale of mining and processing operations exceeds total expenditure. The measure of efficiency for privately owned projects then is profit and/or the rate of return on capital investment.  

The Muskrat Falls project is a publicly owned project where the owners are the citizens of the province. A publicly owned project may be defined as one that is authorized, financed, and operated by a government agency such as Nalcor. Public projects provide utility services such as: water, sewage disposal, electric power, etc. The prime intent then for construction of a public project is to provide a service not for citizens to obtain a profit.

The purpose for construction of the Muskrat Falls project is to ensure that energy users in the province have and will continue to have a reliable supply of energy to meet both existing and future energy demand. U.S. President Barack Obama recently stated that governments should not govern from crisis to crisis. Crisis situations can best be offset through the use of good planning methods and that are upgraded on a continual basis.

If the rate of return on capital investment is a measurement of efficiency for a privately owned project, what factors can be used as an indicator of efficiency for a publicly owned project?

Publicly owned projects are often called self-liquidating projects. In most cases they are not meant to earn profit but are administered to earn sufficient revenues to pay off expenditures over a specific period.

Consequently, the indicator “rate of return” is not applicable for publicly owned projects. Therefore it is very difficult to quantify the economic benefits received from publicly owned projects.

In addition to the fact that it provides essential service to residents, construction of the Muskrat Falls project will provide a number of benefits for residents of Newfoundland and Labrador. The question is: how do you quantify them in monetary terms?

Listing the benefits

The benefits include, but are not limited to, the following:

• Providing the lowest costs for clean renewable energy for residents and businesses.

• Ending the dependence on oil and unstable electricity prices. (The cost of gasoline, a derivative of crude oil, has increased at a compound rate of over 6.2 per cent since 1969. The cost of water to generate energy at Muskrat Falls is zero dollars.)

• Providing long-term stable electricity rates for generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. (The estimated economic life of a dam is approximately 100 years.)

• Creating employment during the construction phase of the project and employment during the continual operation and maintenance period over the economic life of the project

• Increasing the interest of heavy electricity users to relocate to areas adjacent to the energy sources. (The number and duration of power outages will decline proportionally as the distance of users from the power generating source(s) decreases.)

• New industries will provide new opportunities for employment; additional employment will encourage population growth; a larger population will ultimately require an increase in the service industry and much-needed revenues will flow to the provincial coffers. (The provincial and national economies are a function of its prime industries. Check the multiplier effect that the mines at Labrador City and Wabash has on the entire Canadian economy.) 

• Revenues will be received from the sale of energy to Nova Scotia interests; energy that is in excess to our needs. (The Maritime link is to be constructed and financed by Nova Scotia interests. Revenues received can be used to pay down capital expenditures)

• Energy is a product, as is iron ore, oil and gas, wood products, etc. Surplus energy can be sold on the international market.

 • The Maritime Link will provide an alternative route for energy export.  After the Upper Churchill Falls contract has expired, this alternative route will provide leverage in future negotiations for the sale of Upper Churchill energy. (If an alternative route is not available why would Quebec Hydro negotiate?)

• In a scenario where insufficient energy is available to meet 100 per cent of demand, available energy would first have to be distributed to those in greater need and remainder on a proportional basis. (Are consumers willing to do without energy during periods of energy shortages? What costs are consumers willing to pay for higher-priced energy?)         

In general, the comments written above are an attempt to clarify some of the differences inherent between private projects and public projects.

But let’s get real.

None of these comments, nor those written for and against construction of the Muskrat Falls project, have little meaning in reality. Our civilization is, with few exceptions, solely dependant upon some form of energy. A loss of energy will, in time, leave us dead in the water. Residents of Badger, Toronto, Quebec and New Brunswick are witnesses to our dependency on electricity. Gone are the days of potbelly stoves, chopping wood for the stove, kerosene lamps, travel by dog team, outhouse visits, trips to the well for water, etc.

The harsh truth of the matter is that many of us, currently living in Newfoundland and Labrador, would not survive winter if sufficient energy was not available.

Instead of criticizing the integrity of the professionals at Nalcor, shouldn’t we be thankful that they had the fortitude to investigate the need for additional future energy and provide solutions to the problem?


Dave Short writes from St. John’s.

Organizations: Public Utilities Board, Innovation Centre, Maritime Link

Geographic location: Long Harbour, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador U.S. Nova Scotia Upper Churchill Falls Toronto Quebec New Brunswick

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page



Recent comments

  • Tony Rockel
    January 06, 2014 - 18:13

    Yes, Dave. We should be eternally grateful to the Nalcor nincompoops for their total incompetence in allowing our electrical grid to degrade to the point where the slightest shove can send it into catastrophic failure. Giving priority over all else to the Muskrat Fail has been a perfect recipe for disaster. They could have hooked up our existing on-island hydro resources with new transmission lines and met all of our electricity needs for a tiny fraction of Muskrat Fails.

  • Ed Power
    January 06, 2014 - 09:33

    "In addition, experts from Manitoba Hydro also provided a second opinion." These wouldn't be the same "experts" who underestimated the construction costs of their Wuskwatim project by over 100%, would they......?

  • Reading Rainbow
    January 06, 2014 - 07:55

    The word commodity came into use in English in the 15th century, from the French commodité, to a benefit or profit. Going further back, the French word derived from the Latin commoditatem (nominative commoditas) meaning "fitness, adaptation". The Latin root commod- (from which English gets other words including commodious and accommodate) meant variously "appropriate", "proper measure, time, or condition" and "advantage, benefit".

  • Cashin Delaney
    January 06, 2014 - 07:37

    Electricity has the particular characteristic that it is usually uneconomical to store; hence, electricity must be consumed as soon as it is produced. Energy is a commodity product? let's get real Dave the cheerleader! Coal is a commodity, energy is a flow within a network which your experts knowingly neglect for pigeonholed mega projects. Fortitude yes, to keep up the horse face after Danny left, and pretend that our carbon offset determined mega project solves current real problems instead of exasperating them. Nalcor/hydro/mun employees are not to blame, or govt, they have to feather a nest like all of us meatbags who look the other way for their uppers. Not many are willing to call it what it is at MUN, an industrial strength begging bowl which has developed through corporate patronage. We must citicize. Criticize does not mean disparaging or dismissing. Healthy honest criticizing is welcome from open minded professionals intent on improvement and performance, this is how we progress, and 40 years experience without this, and avoiding this kind, critical treatment can leave an engineer a shell of a being, a ring waving, rubberstamping buffoon. The distance between stjohns and muskrat is big question mark. Star lake, bay despair, all this potential, or commodity (?) as it is known as in the Dave model of the universe. Energy. I can smell the wood smoke. 45 drum of gas, crowd is all looked after, thank goodness I trust in a more diverse array of experts and in my friends and family before the experts of white collar welfare at Nalcor and MUN getting paid to nod their head.

  • david
    January 05, 2014 - 13:07

    For those with courage, I suggest you Google 'Muskrat Folly', an editorial in the National Post from just over a year ago by Tom Adams, Toronto-based electricity consultant.

    • John Austin
      January 08, 2014 - 12:48

      Is that the same Tom Adams that opposes every energy-generation project that isn't based on burning recycled Birkenstock shoes? I guess that Energy Probe will never go away. Ask him about his opinion of the Seal Hunt.

    • david
      January 11, 2014 - 18:03

      Dismissal of the source, ignoring the argument, and deflecting / changing the topic. Classic Newfoundland. BTW. 99% of people are against the seal we're wose to ignore all outside expertise on everything? Hunh.

  • david
    January 05, 2014 - 12:55

    The world needs energy. But to take that general premise, and use it as complete, self-evident justification for a 'swing-for-the-fence', ill-conceived project rooted far deeper in political rhetoric, vengeance and ego-stroking than actual economics and pragmatic engineering...well, that's just being Newfoundland, isn't it?

  • Cecil E Young
    January 05, 2014 - 11:33

    Sir, A voice of common sense and reason. Well said! I invite you to post this article on my website for the whole to see.

  • Winston Adams
    January 05, 2014 - 10:12

    The excuse by the power companies for the long delays in restoring power is the phrase "cold load pickup". Our winter peak demand is about 3 times our summer demand due to electric heat. To assist the problem with cold load pickup the power companies can flatten the winter peak. the most effective method is more efficient electric heatpump systems instead of the century old baseboard heater. Dave short should examine the pitiful Conservation program here which addressed this. Other jurisdiction do 10 times more than our power companies. The even make the situation worse by promoting setback programmable thermostats, that automatically bring on heaters at full load in the early morning when the temperature is lowest and therefore contributes to a higher peak demand. A demand management system is not a part of Nalcor, Nfld Hydro or Nfld power approach to deal with critical situations. Instead they gamble of these situations not happening, and when they do, to initiate rotating blackouts. And they beg the customers to "conserve and turn back the thermostats". This is a demonstration of incompetence by our policy makers. And our engineers who know better are being directed by those in authority to stay silent and follow orders. Dave, are confusing the issue of more power with the issue of reliable power, and demand management. A competent power company must address all 3 issues.

  • Mr. Global Squeaker
    January 04, 2014 - 16:08

    Nalcor and MUN personnel may have experience, and knowledge, but, no personal incentive to restrain the conductors of the gravy train, even if they have a rare moment of insight beyond feathering their own nest. The "harsh truth" is that we are all out for ourselves, scientists, dummies like me, and maybe Dave. I was gone a long time, but didn't know they banned wood stoves and well water?

  • Corporate Psycho
    January 04, 2014 - 05:52

    The rolling blackouts we are experiencing now are because of the "professionals" at Nalcor. Have you checked the names on their BOD? Mostly Danny's lawyer buddies. They can't manage what they have now. MF will be a disaster for the regular people of NL. I guess we can eat cake. The days of chopping wood, etc will be back because only the rich will be able to afford their power bill.

    • Muffep
      January 06, 2014 - 09:13

      Dunderdale equates gas fireplace as cake. Let them burn propane. Wood burning is carbon neutral.