Monday, 27 June 2016


Guest Post Written by J. P. Schell, P. Eng (Retired)

On June 18, 2016, I received an e-mail from Jim Gordon, P. Eng. (Retired) attached to which was a CBC News item entitled “Nalcor investigates inconsistent patterns on Muskrat Falls transmission lines". Gordon, who has frequently commented on aspects of the Muskrat Falls project on the Uncle Gnarley Blog, asked what I thought of the issue. My comments are as follows.

From the pictures included in the CBC News item it is apparent the outer strands of the line were squeezed too close together, causing one strand to “pop out” by an amount which is about half the strand diameter as shown in the photo.  (Source: CBC) 

Transmission line conductors are formed by wrapping aluminum wire strands around a central wire as illustrated in the image below. (Source: internet). Layers of strands are added, with the wrap direction alternating to avoid line coiling, until the desired thickness is attained.

There are three situations where a “popped out” strand could have occurred: a) during stringing, b) during transportation, and c) in the factory. The CBC item indicated that approximately 170 km of the DC transmission line had been strung before the work was halted, which represents about 340 km of conductor.

During the stringing operation it is difficult to understand how one strand of conductor could “pop out”. It might be possible because of an accidental mishandling on one reel, but not on about 300 to 400 reels, one after the other. There is nothing in any stringing procedure that can conceivably cause this to occur, reel after reel after reel.

That the problem occurred during transportation is also difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend. Certainly, it will not happen during normal shipping or even very rough shipping. If the reel breaks in transportation, or pieces are damaged and fall off, the conductor is often damaged. What does not happen to the conductor is a condition where over the full length of the reel, one and only one strand “pops out”. 

The only logical place for this to happen is in the factory during the stranding procedure.

When each strand comes off its reel or spool, it is fed into a stranding machine where it is preformed and coiled around the layer below it, layer after layer, until the final layer is completed. As the first conductor is formed, all the procedures are (presumably) checked, measured, and corrected as necessary, until the output from the stranding machine meets the specification. Then the production run can commence after which, to a great extent, automation takes over. 

Obviously, sometime during the stranding procedure, something must have occurred that caused this one strand to be incorrectly coiled and it continued, reel after reel after reel, without stopping until at least 340 km of conductor had been fabricated. Possibly it even continued for the full production run.

Now what?

If the conductor is replaced there will be a significant delay of not less than 6 months, and possibly a year or more. There will be a large cost associated with the defective wire which was likely paid up front. In addition, protracted and expensive lawsuits may ensue. The first question that needs to be asked is this: is this flaw acceptable? The question that follows is: if it is not acceptable, can it be repaired in situ?

On the question of acceptability and in situ repair, I will confirm that I am not a conductor expert, so my comments are opinions, not statements of fact. Nevertheless, I would comment as follows:

At the location of the clamps and dampers this strand will tend to be squeezed, distorted and flattened. As a result, the strand will be weaker than its companion strands; it will be more prone to breaking. If it breaks, the conductor’s overall strength will be correspondingly weakened and the broken strand could slide or work its way out of the clamps. If that happens, it will unravel.

Because the strand has “popped out” of the conductor, it is probably very slightly longer than its companion strands and therefore will tend to act somewhat differently. Rain or dew or similar could get under the strand and freeze, thus pulling the strand even further from the conductor, thus allowing weather better access to the inner strands and isolating the strand even further from the conductor.

Because this strand has “popped out”, it then becomes a target for being picked upon during the stringing process. If anything adverse is going to happen, it will happen to this strand. In other words, it is a target for distortion, for getting “in the way”, and for breaking. I would not be surprised if reports were made of strands having broken during stringing.

All conductors, if the wind speed and wind direction are just right and are blowing along the strands, have a tendency to gallop. Galloping occurs if the lifted strand funnels the wind just enough such that the elongated shape becomes an airfoil — just slightly more prone to fly.

Is there a solution to the problem? First, I would state that I do not agree with a remedial action such as tightly winding an aluminum tape or equivalent around the conductor in a direction counter to the stranding. There are just too many things that could go wrong with it.

This line will be in service for more than 50 years — probably closer to 100 years — and under very severe weather conditions.  This one odd-ball strand will be the one around which problems will tend to occur. For this reason, it would be my opinion that the conductor should be replaced. For major transmission lines, like those delivering power from Muskrat Falls, there is just too much at risk if they are not.

Under the very reasonable presumption that the flaw did originate in the factory, at the stranding machine, there are many questions that need to be asked. All are related to two, which are fundamental. First, why wasn’t it picked up sooner? And second: how was it that a decision to stop the work wasn’t made until most, if not all, of the conductor had been shipped and 170 km of the HVDC line was strung?

Under normal circumstances, it is difficult to comprehend how 340 km (or even possibly the full production run) of flawed conductor could be allowed to leave the factory. While it is recognized that the process, once started, is essentially fully automated, it is difficult to understand how reel after reel after reel could be stranded and packaged and shipped without being picked up by normal factory quality assurance procedures. One might accept the possibility of one or two defective reels, but not more.

The factory process is basic. The conductor for each reel is viewed by the factory work crews who attach the start conductor to the reel, cut and fix in place the end conductor, and apply the lagging. They would know it was a flawed conductor, particularly as the problem occurred reel after reel after reel. Such a situation would not speak highly of the supplier’s internal quality assurance procedures.

If, on the other hand, the factory QA did pick up the flaw, then someone in management had to have let it go, knowing that the flawed product would be shipped. It seems obvious that the shipment would not have taken place if the purchaser’s inspector was knowledgeable and doing a good job. 

Presumably the purchaser (Nalcor, the Owner? SNC-Lavalin, the Engineer?) hired an independent and qualified inspector to undertake the factory inspection. If the supplier’s factory is located overseas, or if the conductor’s place of origin is suspect, then the necessary for a diligent inspection process is absolutely mandatory.

That said, 340 km (or more) of flawed conductor having left the factory, it is apparent that the inspector, if there was one, was lax in his undertaking. We might ask: What were his terms of reference? Who wrote them? Nalcor? SNC-Lavalin? Was he supposed to inspect and pass each reel before shipment? Did the inspector make daily visits? Weekly? Monthly? Did he have the authority to stop production? Was he not required to make the purchaser aware of the flaw? On what basis did he “approve” the conductor? What did his inspection reports say? For that matter, do any inspection reports exist?

It is indeed curious that even though the supplier had to know that his conductor was flawed, it was shipped anyway, and presumably paid for in full.

What was happening during stringing is another story. It is impossible to believe that it wasn’t almost immediately noticed, particularly when it was happening reel after reel.

Valard should have seen it first. Their crews removed the lagging, connected the conductor to the pullers, manned the reel brakes and, ultimately, took the conductors off the pulleys and attached the clamps, spacer dampers and dead-ends.

Presumably, the Owner’s (Nalcor’s) and/or the Engineer’s (SNC-Lavalin’s) inspectors were on site, along with Valard QA personnel. Almost immediately, qualified inspectors would have recognized the problem and informed the Owner. If an inspector wasn’t on site, the Owner’s Engineer would have had to have been informed of that circumstance, too. Valard, or any contractor, most assuredly would have reported this flaw if for no other reason than that they would not want to be responsible for installing material that they knew was faulty or potentially contained a serious flaw. It is simply not in any contractor’s interest to install a product which they know or suspect will have to removed and reinstalled at their own expense.

In short, from almost the very beginning of the stringing process, the Owner’s Engineer at least had to have been aware that something was not right with the conductor. Yet, the stringing continued.

The disturbing conclusion is that Valard had to have been told to continue stringing. Equally disturbing is that Valard was likely informed that, though the conductor was flawed, the flaw was acceptable and that Valard could continue stringing without consequence to the Company. Logic dictates that the installation was approved in writing.

About 4–5 months after 170 km of line was strung, the stringing was finally halted. The CBC News item does not say what inspired this decision. Whatever it was had to have been serious. Likely, the decision was made because the popped-out strand continually unravelled as the stringing processed. It might have become obvious that the conductor — potentially the entire shipment — was flawed, and the whole batch unusable.

Again, the role of the Inspector/Engineer in the QA process is disturbing. So many questions demand answers. Was the stringing being closely monitored? When did the unravelling, or other problems, first occur? How often did it happen? Was it reported? If so, how was it reported? Did it show up as just another item in the Inspector’s routine inspection reports, or was it serious and passed up the line?

The stringing continued for several months. The implication is that the Engineer did not consider the flaw to be serious. If he did, he may not have insisted that the work be stopped, which, admittedly, is a decision he has the right to make. 

The role of the Owner was also disturbing. The decision to continue with the stringing had to have originated with the Owner. Was the decision the result of pressure to maintain the schedule and to avoid cost overruns? Did no one pay attention to reparation costs that would only increase as the stringing continued? Did no one consider the inevitable problems that would occur having installed this flawed conductor?

This massive failure of Quality Assurance can only enlarge an already serious problem of cost overruns on the Muskrat Falls project. Mistakes of such magnitude, and the reasons why they occurred, deserve proper airing. Those responsible must be held to account.

At the risk of repetition, perhaps the CBC will ask Nalcor the following: First, what was the role of the Engineer/Inspector in allowing, potentially, a full shipment of flawed conductor to leave the factory? Second, what was the role of the Engineer in allowing a conductor, possessing a flaw, to be continually installed for several months?  And thirdly, what was the role of the Owner in allowing a flawed product to be installed on his transmission line?

Editor's Note:
J.P. (Joe) Schell is a Professional Engineer with over 55 years of transmission line experience with Shawinigan Engineering, Montreal Engineering [Monenco] including, for 20 years, as a private Consultant. He has experience in all aspects of TL design from initial studies and evaluations to detailed design and construction supervision. Schell has worked on projects in all the Canadian provinces, the Yukon and the NW Territories.

Internationally, Mr. Schell has worked on TL projects in over 25 countries. He was the lead TL engineer with ShawMont Newfoundland in St John’s for the design of the Bay D’Espoir island wide transmission system, the lead designer for the 69 kV Marble Mountain project for Deer Lake Power, and other lines in Newfoundland.

Other career credits include lead transmission line engineer in the study stages of the Sete Quedas 13,200 mw hydro development, Brazil. He was the lead TL design engineer for a 400 kV super grid project in Iraq. Prepared contract documents for the 400 kV line from Shiraz to Sirjan in Iran and provided assistance to the World Bank, in Washington, related to the rebuilding of the high voltage transmission system in Lebanon. 

Schell also provided design assistance to SNC-Lavalin in St John’s for the early stages of the Muskrat Falls hvdc project.


  1. Another sad and "twisted" tale brought to you by SNC Lavalin. Thank you Mr. Schell for your informed analysis. This points again to the failure of project management at MF.

    Will the conductors be replaced? Who will pay for it? How has the project management and quality control been such an abject failure? What will be done about it? Most important to beleaguered rate/taxpayers who pays for the mistake?

  2. Sad part is the nalcor experts are making about 300 k a year to supervise this madness. Who will be accountable?

  3. Are these known project management firms that hold contracts on the Muskrat Falls Project, who are bankrupting our government and citizens through faulty workmanship going to face the legal system?

  4. Hello Joe,
    I read your sad and sagging Muskrat story with great interest. I have also read some of Jim Gordon's commentary on various aspects of Muskrat. Even though it is not a good news story, tis good to read from it that you are still engaged and interested in transmission lines.

    1. I know of a Wallace Smith, a retired civil engineer who worked at Churchill Falls. Believe he was seen at the Cabot Martin presentation at the LSPU hall on the quick clay issue. He seems to be a reader of Uncle Gnarley. Wallace... a quiet mild manner person, and should have some insight in the risks and problems of MF. But where is his point of view, I wonder. Likely getting a pension now, and free to voice his opinion, rather than just saying hi to an old friend Joe, also retired, but vocal in this piece. Speak up Wallace...................what do you think.........

    2. Hi Anonymous,
      I saw many of you at the Bernander presentation on the quick condition in clays and some people that I knew. It's a small world. I was interested at that time in the theory of brittle/progressive slope failure analysis versus plastic limit equilibrium analysis.
      Based upon a simple news story, Joe's analysis of the conductor problem is quite interesting.

  5. Lets all agree we cannot build mega projects and stop the madness in the future..

  6. A very well written piece Mr. Schell. As for the content, it goes straight to the heart of the issue regarding the quality of the PMT noted by Mr. Wright. It also goes to the issue of whether there was a budget for the PMT to hire sufficient and experienced inspectors, to say nothing about the quality of the inspection procedures and whether the procedure was properly applied. Mr. Schell has raised many related questions on this matter.

    Given the potential risk for such a major procurement, putting an inspector in the production facility on a full-time basis is not unusual. This is especially true if you are sourcing from countries/facilities with suspect reputations. Many operating companies (owners) around the world refuse to allow purchases of many key materials and equipment from such places. Typically, the owner reserves the right to unfettered discretion with respect to the 'approved vendors list'. Who did the purchasing? Nalcor and free-issue to Valard? Or did Valard do it themselves? "Quality", as it is now called in the project biz (no more use of QA/QC), is a massive task for a PMT on a mega-project. It ultimately determines, when commissioning and start -up will actually occur, how well the facility will operate and the expected life of the operation. If you don't spend the money ensuring quality on the front-end, it will sure bite you bad during commissioning, start-up and operations. You can also expect that a ramped up maintenance cycle will be necessary if quality specifications and standards are not met.

    It begs the question: Who was responsible for Quality when the purchase order was placed for the transmission line‎? Was SNC Lavalin still in the EPCM role and therefore responsible for it? Note, an EPCM usually will not take any project risk so good luck going after them). They are just an agent pushing paper for the owner.

    In any event, ‎it must be pointed out that Nalcor, as owner, is ultimately responsible for the PMT (whether it is an EPCM or an integrated team) and it's inspection procedure and processes. This is another effect of a company being totally unprepared to undertake a project like Muskrat Falls. Neophyte spending the NL public's money. The sage continues.

  7. The Telegram question of today asks if you can afford the projected 150 dollars a month increase for power for an average home, based the Marshall`s latest numbers. I answered yes, for these reasons: I have higher than average income, and I have installed an efficient heating system 5 years ago that cuts my heat bill in half, and which has saved enough to have paid for my system. So the increase on my bill will be very modest. I followed the approach practised in other jurisdictions for the past decade: efficient heating is the key.
    Of course the 150 dollars a month increase is avearge over all 12 months, and a average house is only 1100 sq ft. Winter heating bills for many houses , now at 500 dollars will be 1000 dollars.
    Anyway the survey shows 12 percent can afford these rates, and 87 percent cannot.
    Here is the disconnect: as of a couple of weeks ago 54 percent were still in support of Muskrat Falls, now 87 percent cannot afford it. Are we do see a poll soon to reflect this loss of support.....
    Winston Adams

    1. Personal cost to ratepayers wallets was never mentioned in previous polls , supporting the idea of something sans facts and numbers is easy.

    2. Yes, like supporting Brexit without knowing the economic impact. Yet MF was reported to increase electricity rates by more than 40 percent from day one.... yet misleading to the public saying other options were more costly. The complexities of MF cost and cost of other options was beyond the understanding of the average person, who was being misled by the presumed experts, and hidden by Bill 29 secrecy and cutting off the PUB.

    3. My daughter heats her 2 Story home for as low as $250 per month during the winter in Northern British Columbia where they have days that are as cold as minus 40 to minus 50 degrees. They have their heat on 20 degrees at all times with all the electrical gadgets you can find anywhere. They also have an outdoor Hot Tub being heated throughout the year. Their heat is provided by Gas. In St. John's NL with a much milder winter climate the hydro electric cost would be about $1000 per month that would be 4 times as much as Northern British Columbia.

    4. BC is rapidly losing its low Hydro power advantage. My BC Hydro bill is up 15%/year over the past 5 years, (Fernie 2 bedroom apartment- $75/month average). The Provincial Government is gouging its cash cow to build Site C dam on the Peace to feed the LNG business. This could well be Christie Clarke's Muskrat Falls!

    5. I know the Peace River area very well. It makes me angry to know of the destruction that will be caused from the building of this dam to the wild life and scenic views. I wasn't aware though of the rise In Hydro bills.

    6. Yes, gas is cheap for heating. Just looked at a CMHC test report from 2014 done in Ontario. Heat pump system used half the energy as gas or baseboard electric heaters (tests done in two identical houses). With climate change even gas for burning has to end. Ontario, and most of the world is moving in this direction. I guess 90 percent of the people know little of heat pumps, and they spell doom for MF energy use on the island.
      Winston Adams

  8. On the value of inspections, as an engineer with Nfld Hydro in the 1970s, I was engaged in factory inspections on large power transformers, and on relay and protection panels, and these were Canadian made by reputable manufacturers.
    Protection panels were made to our design drawings and specifications. A number of steps were necessary: assure that the factory made no errors, and that the many components were correct,and wires were connected to the proper terminals, internally and to terminals for later field connections. Once shipped and installed, I was again involved in double checking all this and assuring field contractors had wired correctly to the other substation equipment. Any single wire incorrectly connected could lead to mis-operation and outages once the system was in service.
    I recall a cold winter in Buchans in a Hydro trailer, with my wife and young child, with the furnace running constant to stay warm, as myself and Fred Martin, another Hydro engineer worked on commissioning for the 230kv infrastructure there.
    Mr Schell`s assessment of transmission line inspection is typical of what goes into all major equipment for such projects. I shutter to think what else may be lurking as to poor quality assurance for MF
    Winston Adams

    1. Anonymous29 June 2016 at 00:21. Thanks, I will certainly look into this and evaluate what savings it will mean for my hydro bill.

  9. this has been reported for the last few months by workers installing those wires. THEY WERE TOLD TO KEEP INSTALLING THEM. now months later, a couple of them got laid off because of no work. no friggin nalcor cannot say this was not mention earlier... and this has been widely reported with facebook post

    1. I would welcome some contact from this commentator; confidentiality assured -

  10. Anonymous 28 June 2016 at 11:24. Our home's mode of heat and light is from hydro electricity. What is entailed in installing a heat pump and how much would it cost for a 2 Story, 1100 sq ft per floor house? Would there be much disruption through having to tear down walls for installation?


      This former associate, and very experienced Energy Engineer, (Halifax) could help answer your question.

      He is also very knowledgeable on Renewable Energy in NL.

    2. Robert G. Holmes. Thanks for the email address.

    3. Latest edition of Downhome "Home and Cabin, page 27 has an add for heatpumps, by company in Mount Pearl, True comfort,
      It says "electricity to rise once muskrat Falls comes online
      For 1100sq ft per floor, for minisplits you need 1.5 to 2 ton on the main floor, and 1 ton or no unit upstairs , as heat rises. Budget price is $4000 to 4500 for main floor unit, and assumes your house is open concept. But any contractor would need to assess your layout . you need a unit that supplies adequate heat to -15 to -20 C, called a cold climate model. Cheaper units are poor for cold condition when you need them most. Unit will pay for itself in 5 or 6 years, or 3 to 4 years when MF rates apply. If you can avoid baseboard heaters coming on at any time, your savings will be about $15,000 over 20 years, $35,000 at MF rates. Key is not to undersize units. A second smaller unit if needed is about $3500 installed. These are reasonable estimates, and not prices from True comfort..... see what they quote you.