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
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
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
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.

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.


Bill left public life shortly after the signing of the Atlantic Accord and became a member of the Court of Appeal until his retirement in 2003. During his time on the court he was involved in a number of successful appeals which overturned wrongful convictions, for which he was recognized by Innocence Canada. Bill had a special place in his heart for the underdog.

Churchill Falls Explainer (Coles Notes version)

If CFLCo is required to maximize its profit, then CFLCo should sell its electricity to the highest bidder(s) on the most advantageous terms available.


This is the most important set of negotiations we have engaged in since the Atlantic Accord and Hibernia. Despite being a small jurisdiction we proved to be smart and nimble enough to negotiate good deals on both. They have stood the test of time and have resulted in billions of dollars in royalties and created an industry which represents over a quarter of our economy. Will we prove to be smart and nimble enough to do the same with the Upper Churchill?


  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. 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?

  3. 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.

    • 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………

    • 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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!

    • 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.

    • 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

  6. 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

  7. 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

  8. 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?

    • 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.