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Russell Wangersky: Clear as mud

Workers install a tower during construction of the Labrador-Island link.
Workers install a tower during construction of the Labrador-Island link. — SaltWire Network file photo

You turn on your computer, and it tells you that you need new software.

 

The process starts, a little ball spins onscreen, and eventually, maybe hours later, the thing’s ready to go.

But what if the ball was spinning for four expensive months?

Welcome to Nalcor-world. It may be a gross oversimplification, but that’s kind of what’s going on now with the power line that’s supposed to bring energy here from Labrador.

One line was supposed to be up and running in July. The new date? Late October. Because software isn’t ready yet.

Here are the questions I asked Nalcor about the software issue.

When did Nalcor/Labrador-Island Link (LIL) become aware of the software problem?
What’s the name of the software?
Who is the maker?
What exactly does the software do?
Who is paying for the update?
Does it require replacing the existing system?
How much will the delay add to costs — including things like lost opportunity to deliver recall power?

Here’s Nalcor’s answer: “As part of GE’s contract for the Labrador-Island Transmission Link, GE is developing software for the operation of the new High Voltage direct current (HVdc) transmission assets. … Testing and development of software is completed in phases through the commissioning process. As we move through the commissioning phase of the LIL, GE is continuing to develop its software as this is the normal course of software development for these type of transmission projects.
“Energization and ongoing dynamic commissioning will continue over the coming months, with power expected to be delivered as scheduled to Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro for its customers on the island for the upcoming winter season.”

Now, taken in isolation, that sounds as if the whole process is working as it should.

But the problem has meant the line is only carrying 45 megawatts of power (and only for eight or nine hours a day) right now instead of the planned 225.

Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro had planned to bring low-cost recall power to the northeast Avalon on that line.

In testimony at PUB hearings on a proposed rate hike by Newfoundland Hydro in April, the utility’s president testified that the line was “planned to be in service by mid-year.”

It didn’t happen as expected. As Hydro vice-president Ron Leblanc told the PUB on July 16, “I know there is new software that is required and that is on order, and they are expecting that late in (the third quarter).”

Here’s an exchange that followed on the issue:

“That’s what you’d been told by Nalcor. I presume, by Nalcor?”

“Yes.”

“What’s the nature of the software? What’s your information or understanding of the nature of the software that needed to be ordered?”

“I don’t have that level of detail.”

Neither do I.

When I asked again about who would carry any costs for the delay, including the lost opportunity to transmit power, Nalcor’s written response was, “the software development for LIL operations is all part of GE’s contract and included in their scope of work.”

GE has been a significant source of delay on the Labrador-Island Link for months now, with outside consultants arguing it’s been difficult to get GE to “focus” on the work.

Liberty Consulting, hired by the PUB, pointed out, “It bears note that General Electric corporate-wide has experienced significant legal problems and financial turmoil, with concern particularly focused on its power business. GE’s power unit plans to cut over 15 percent of its work force this year. Nalcor has cited a significant increase in its efforts to get GE ‘focused’ on its work here, qualitatively noting that it believes that its contractor’s focus has increased.” GE’s troubles, Liberty points out, “presents major challenges for a project whose performance has lagged and continues to do so.”

So, there’s a problem, or it’s the normal course of events and is on schedule.

Nalcor says one thing, Hydro executives, under oath, say something else. They also say they’re more than a little in the dark.

I suppose we’ll find out when the bills come in.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.


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