To the end of 2013, images seen of the $7.7-billion Muskrat Falls project were of early works — establishing the construction site on the lower Churchill River, removing thousands of trees and tonnes of rock from the hydro dam site and starting drilling at either side of the Strait of Belle Isle for a power link between Labrador and Newfoundland.
Each piece of work is being completed under contract, mostly to companies with a local base.
However, at the start of 2014, the story is of Muskrat Falls going global — with work to manufacture unique, long-lead items required for the construction underway.
Only a handful of companies in the world are capable of producing some of the items needed for the backbone of Newfoundland and Labrador’s power system.
And those companies have a broad reach, leaving Nalcor Energy responsible for testing and manufacturing happening in 11 countries.
As one example, cable that will cross the Strait of Belle Isle and bring Muskrat Falls power to Newfoundland, in the spaces now being drilled, are to be created by Nexans. That company has a head office in Norway, where engineering of the cables was undertaken.
Actual manufacturing of the required 100 kilometres of cable has now begun in Futtsu, Japan.
It is expected it will take the specialized factory just over a year to finish the work.
Muskrat Falls is being built in Newfoundland and Labrador, but also — piece by piece — in manufacturing facilities in the United States, China, India, Italy, Norway, Austria, Turkey, Mexico, Japan and Bahrain.
Specialization aside, the main contracts for the manufacturing of Muskrat Falls pieces are not small packages of work.
Should you take the 3,000 kilometres of conductor wire required for the power link between Churchill Falls and Muskrat Falls, for example, and run it along the trail circling Quidi Vidi Lake, you could make over 789 loops before running out.
Midal Cables has been contracted to provide that conductor and will be manufacturing it in Askar, Bahrain.
Seves Canada will be producing over 400,000 insulators for power towers for the project in Naples, Italy, under contracts awarded to date.
Manufacturing of the main turbine and generator components — the heart of the Muskrat Falls power plant — is being completed by Andritz-Hydro in China.
The mass of the combined turbine and generator rotor is 630 tonnes. That is roughly equivalent to the weight of 4 1/2 blue whales or, for a potentially more familiar image to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, the weight of 14 fully-grown humpbacks.
Manufacturing these and other specialized products will demand months and even years to complete. Nalcor Energy is expected to be watching all the while, attentive to potential cost overruns and anything that might disturb the product schedule.
“Depending on the various pieces of equipment, we’ll have people on site for the critical processes, we have ongoing audits, inspections, quality surveillance — both by our own people as well as consultants,” Nalcor’s project lead, Gilbert Bennett said in an interview this week.
The consultants include four companies contracted for “independent, third-party quality surveillance” beginning in 2013.
“So, for example, the submarine cable is just starting manufacturing now at the factory in Futtsu (Japan). We had people there to witness some of those activities. We’ve had independent material testing on things like the turbine blades and so on, metallurgy work and so on, that we would have done independently of the supplier, who actually does it themselves as well,” he said.
“It’s not like you can take it back to Costco and say, ‘This one’s defective, give me another one’,” he added. “With long-lead items, through the manufacturing process, you’ve got to catch it at the time.”
While willing to walk through project oversight, Bennett refused comment on whether the project schedule and costs to date are on target.
A detailed update on the project, providing over-under figures, is expected later this quarter.