Monday, 30 July 2012


The strain was showing on Uncle Gnarley’s face as he fought to complete his oration on that “dreaded” Muskrat Falls project.  His declaration that the Province should kill the power generation plant at Muskrat completely and build only the transmission line now, was deemed by him, a ‘modest’ proposal. 

Though he had reservations, Gnarley made certain that I understood, even his ‘modest’ proposal contained a significant qualifier: Nalcor must purchase access to 250-350 MWs from Hydro Quebec.  Together with the balance of ‘recall’ power from the Upper Churchill, of about 80MWs, the cost of which is small, might, he suggested, “and I emphasize, might, justify such an expensive transmission link to the island”.
The proposal had its face saving elements which Gnarley knew would have to be offered.  Some politicians would ‘go down with the ship’, he suggested, rather than acknowledge they had made a grievous error in judgement. 

Though he was a skilled Economist and retired University Professor, Uncle Gnarley had spent many a summer plying the waters off Petty Harbour, as a fisherman.  For him, turbulence, breaking waves and an unforgiving coastline were acceptable risks, though measureable when prudently assessed.  Those who conjured up Muskrat Falls were landlubbers, he suggested, for whom even the crises in Greece barely served as a metaphor for peril. For Uncle Gnarley, Muskrat Falls, wore all the hallmarks of impending disaster.
 “Just a drop”, Nav, as I offered to re-fill his glass.  I wish to be clear about my conclusions.

“My ‘modest’ proposal may seem a little brazen, he suggested. Whether it is or not, though, is quite immaterial. Don’t forget, I added a caveat, he reminded me, again. 
“Oh, I can hear the politicians now, deriding that idea, he laughed in mock sarcasm!  But, Nav, it will be a test of their leadership.  The Premier will have to admit to being wrong; she will have to shelve millions of dollars of design work already underway.  She will need courage to tell the public that there is a better approach.  I believe the public will embrace the idea but only if she has what it takes to tell the whole truth of Muskrat’s high cost and high risk, before it is too late.
“If she refuses that duty, the Premier is merely inviting the people of the Province to risk screwing themselves, in order to screw Quebec, he growled.  She is a willing partner, engaged in crazy politics, worse economics and the betrayal of our intelligence, as a people.

“Now, let’s deal with the caveat I placed on building the transmission line to the island”.  Gnarley stiffened in a posture that dared his sole listener to mistake his carefully crafted analysis:  “In the unlikely event that Hydro Quebec won’t sell us power at a competitive price, let’s forget the Labrador link, as well as the generation plant.  Completely, he added! 
Realizing exactly what Gnarley had prescribed, as if for further emphasis, I asked the obvious: you are suggesting that the Province scrap the entire Muskrat venture?  “You mean ‘misadventure’ don’t you, Nav”, suggested Gnarley and laughed a little.  Getting serious again, his face wore the grim aspect of one deeply worried.  “They really have no choice, Nav.  Unless, we can access very cheap power, the project is too risky and much too expensive.

“Now, Nav, the final question is, do we have other alternatives, if Hydro Quebec won’t sell us power at a cost at least competitive with what they recently sold the State of Vermont? 
“We do, he stated, baldly.  As much as Nalcor is chomping at the bit to build this project, and as much as they have shielded critical information from the public and conspired to give an impression that Muskrat is the ‘lowest cost option’, we enjoy the advantage of excellent alternatives.  Are they are less risky, than Muskrat Falls, in this super-heated mega project environment? They are.  
“What is Uncle Gnarley’s solution? Uncle Gnarley asked, addressing the question to himself, for he was determined that he not be diverted from his train of thought.  I say, Nav, let’s revert to the “isolated island’ option, as Nalcor calls it, but an enhanced version of that option.  I am certain it is best for all of us.

“The ‘isolated island’ option allows power to be developed incrementally, as the need is proven, said Gnarley, giving the statement added emphasis.  It gives us time to better assess our ‘real’ power needs and get beyond a labour market which has ceased to relate to unemployed Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. 
“It affords us time to properly assess the natural gas option and other alternatives.  It will keep us solvent through ‘risk avoidance’.  It will allow us to reach 2041, with the provincial treasury intact. 

“Let’s develop the remaining hydro on the island.  Island Pond at 36 MW, Portland Creek at 23 MW and Round Pond at 18 MW wait to be developed. Let’s build more wind.  The Joint Panel experts, in reviewing Nalcor’s Plan, noted that our grid could afford up to 300 MW, while Nalcor, for some unknown reason, has capped wind power at 80MW. 
“Let’s add combined-cycle combustion turbine or CCCT plants to our energy mix, which use high grade fuel, lowering our carbon footprint; let’s locate them in Holyrood, where the electrical infrastructure already exists and is paid for. These Units are designed to easily accommodate a secondary fuel; our options are then, never limited. If our risk is also lowered, I believe the public will be content to have oil continue, as part of our energy portfolio, as they have for the past several decades.

“Let’s introduce conservation; I know, Gnarley added wryly, it’s a novel concept, he laughed, except that it does not fit the government’s political agenda, right now.  I am coming to the end, Nav. 
“I say, let’s reduce peak demand by differentiating the cost of power during different periods of the year as well as during different periods of each day.  Current technology will allow us to reduce both our ‘capacity’ and our ‘load’ requirements. Smart meters, developed right here in this Province, can be part of that process.

“If necessary, let’s outlaw space heating, as Norway has done, and require the use of heat pumps; if people were made aware of the efficiencies and savings associated with these appliances, they would be grateful and compliant.
“All that we can do now should be directed towards the goal of not taking on the risk of the Muskrat Falls project. In a Province with fewer than two hundred thirty thousand tax payers, we can’t afford that risk.  So, let’s not do it!

“Let’s plan for Upper Churchill power in 2041.

“If Nalcor is determined to build a hydro project and Dunderdale, Kennedy and Marshall are not smart enough to stop them, we can only hope that the bankers whose bonds will finance this folly, will be unimpressed with a project that has to be subsidized from the get go.  They just might force the government to come to its senses!
With that last comment, a tired looking Uncle Gnarley stood up and headed for the doorway.  He stopped abruptly and appeared as if he was addressing every thinking adult in the Province:  “How”, he bellowed, “after all we have come through in this Province and after having been given a second chance to make things right with a few offshore oil wells; on what basis are we feeling,  suddenly, so invincible”?