Second thoughts on Muskrat Falls

Published on January 24, 2014

I have recently read in your paper two lengthy articles extolling the virtues of the Muskrat project. As an original supporter of this venture, who after much study found that the risks and costs far outweigh any benefits, I felt the need to respond.

My limited research on other current hydro projects being planned reveals Muskrat Falls power to be by far the most expensive  hydro power to be produced. The Belo Monte dam in Brazil (a monster project, third largest in world) is projected to cost $16 billion and will generate 11,230 megawatts (MW) of power. The Romaine project in Quebec is projected at $6.5 billion and will produce 1,550 MW. Our Muskrat Falls is now at $7 billion to $8 billion for over 800 MW. Taxpayers and other interested parties, please get your calculators  out and do the math! Remember, we ratepayers/taxpayers will bear the  brunt of  this very expensive outlay of public money — Nova Scotians and others (if we have any left to export to New England states) will get market rates of four to five cents per kilowatt hour. We will pay anything ranging from 18 cents to 40 cents — maybe much more if we dare factor in the inevitable cost overruns.

Hydro power has invariably been touted as “clean” energy. Premier Kathy Dunderdale has said this so often (and Nalcor officials, too) that one would have to believe that it must be an absolute truth. I confess that I did believe this, too, for a long time. Independent research has shown that, over their lifetime, greenhouse gas emissions from some boreal (Northern Manitoba) and tropical (Brazil) hydro reservoirs may either be equivalent to, or greatly exceed, those from coal-burning power plants of the same generating capacity. Gotta love those myths!

The project is being sold to us as stable and reliable. Does anyone know of any submarine power cable anywhere else that has the regular passage of huge icebergs above it? The  terrain that the 1,100-kilometre transmission line will pass through is high ground for much of the line — therefore subject to ice-covered wires and high winds. Do these conditions sound familiar to anyone lately?

Can you imagine trying make quick repairs to such a long, relatively inaccessible line? Weeks at best, maybe months if extensive damage happens. We had better have a great backup system in place. Significantly, Ron Penney and David Vardy pointed out in a recent letter to the editor that there is no agreement with Emera for emergency power coming to us from the mainland if the above happens. Guess we have to trust that Nalcor will cover this in future agreements with Nova Scotia. One wonders how much more power we may have to commit to get that in place.

So much has changed since the initial announcement six or seven years ago. Nova Scotia was supposed to get 20 per cent of the power — now the new agreement gives them 44 per cent to 57 per cent. The Shale Gale (development of natural gas from shale) has depressed energy prices in the States. (Remember when Nalcor talked about the great profit we could make from selling extra power on the spot market?) Quebec found that power from the Romaine Project does not qualify for the Renewable Energy Certificate adopted by 25 states, including some of the main New England states like New York. Wow, even some so-called power hungry states no longer view hydro from big dam projects as clean energy. Wonder if they neglected to tell this to our premier last year when she came back and told us all how much they desired our new clean, green energy?

Government and Nalcor have prevailed on us recently to conserve, conserve, conserve. Yet for many years, leading up to the present woes, they could have initiated many conservation steps — mandatory heat pumps for new large houses (maybe subsidies for some income groups to use this heating technology), different rates for peak usage power times, better building insulation standards, etc. — there are no shortage of conservation ideas out there for sure.

The problem with doing these wise measures means we will need less energy in the future, and this would not be in the interest of Nalcor at all once Muskrat comes online. Then they will want us to burn, baby, burn because that’s one giant bill that will need to be paid by us consumers. God help those who are already struggling with their heating bills.

One  final thought: Manitoba Hydro, which has been used to give consultant advice on Muskrat Falls, recommended a higher construction standard be used when building the very long transmission line. Nalcor opted for a less costly system. Given the above thoughts about the harsh conditions of the terrain through which the power lines pass, was this a wise decision or one of necessity?

Was there a less costly option than Muskrat? Indubitably, but it would not have been a grand legacy project, though, and therein lies the rub.

Charlie Menchions writes from Sandy Cove

on the Eastport Peninsula.