Transmission Troubles

The argument in favour of new power lines sounds reasonable. Alberta is growing and so are its energy demands.



The argument in favour of new power lines sounds reasonable.

Alberta is growing and so are its energy demands. But the electric transmission system — that web of towers and power lines, substations and generation facilities — is aging and hasn’t been significantly upgraded in decades.

So, for the Alberta Electric System Operator — the people in charge of overseeing the province’s power grid — the conclusion is clear, more capacity is needed to keep the lights on.

But why then has it become such a polarizing issue, pitting landowners against regulators, power companies and politicians?

Bill Kinley, president of Uniting People Together Against Government (UPTAG), believes the answer is simple: the lines are not needed.

The whole exercise is meant to build a system that could cost as much as $20 billion ultimately, that can export electricity to the U.S. to boost power company profits, he charges.

There’s nothing wrong with making a buck out of selling power to the U.S., he says. Where he and many others have a big problem is what they fear is a back-door effort to make Alberta taxpayers pick up the bill for a project that benefits big business — the ones who should be paying for the infrastructure.

“We just feel this should just not be done on the backs of the ratepayers of Alberta. It should be done by AltaLink and the companies that will eventually benefit.”

Kinley says if the province’s power grid is so overstretched, why have there been no blackouts and brownouts, even during the highest consumption peaks.

Don Bester, of the Alberta Surface Rights Group, has a similar take on why power lines have become such an incendiary issue.

“The government (is) ramming it down our throats.

“It’s not just the landowners that should be concerned. There is no proven need for this power.”

“They keep giving us the fear factor, and I’m getting tired of it,” he says.

Calgary-based Industrial Power Consumers Association of Alberta has also warned that the government’s plans amount to a costly and inefficient over-building of the transmission system. The coalition of 20 industries that consume 30 per cent of the province’s power says that building unnecessary multi-billion-dollar transmission projects and passing costs on to consumers will drive electricity bills through the roof and drive business out of the province.

Executive director Sheldon Fulton said the association agrees more transmission is needed, just not the kind of “white elephant” project being proposed.

“A the end of the day, our big fear is we’re going to spend a lot of money on something that’s not going to be used and we’re still going to have to pay for.”

Rimbey’s Joe Anglin, who has been a vocal critic of the province’s power plans as main spokesman for the Lavesta Area Group of landowners, says the whole debate boils down to “an issue of democratic rights and due process of law.

“What the government has done is really perverted the process for making the determination on what’s in the best interests for the public. Very blatantly, they have excluded the public.”

For instance, many landowners are angry that Bill 50 has eliminated the requirement for a public hearing process to determine the need for critical transmission projects. Instead, that decision now rests with cabinet, which relies on AESO for advice on what is critical.

Four projects have been identified as critical. A pair of Edmonton-to-Calgary lines. The Western Alberta Transmission Line runs through Central Alberta roughly in line with Rimbey and the Eastern Alberta Transmission Line runs on a Hanna and Castor line. Also included, is a new line from Edmonton to the Heartland area near Fort Saskatchewan, twin lines from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, and a new substation in Calgary.

Premier Ed Stelmach tackled the power export rumours head-on at a meeting earlier this year in Sherwood Park.

“I want to make it very clear,” he was quoted as saying. “We are not exporting power to keep the lights on in California.”

Alberta Energy spokesman Derek Cummings says for the last few years the province has imported more electricity than it has exported — two per cent imported versus one per cent exported.

Cummings says criticism that the lines are not needed is off the mark. “The need is identified by a group of experts in the province, the Alberta Electric System Operator.

“They are an independent group, free of any industry connections.”

The $3.9 billion worth of proposed critical transmission projects would boost average monthly bills by about $3.40.

AESO transmission director Greg Retzer says its power engineering teams are constantly monitoring the province’s electricity needs and capabilities and there is no doubt it’s time for an upgrade.

An absence of blackouts or other problems is not an indication the system doesn’t need upgrading.

“Part of our mandate is we never get to that stage — not operate the car on the red line type of thing,” he said. The system is designed so a lightning strike or other issue doesn’t lead to escalating problems.

Retzer also rejects the notion the lines are meant to export electricity. “These lines are definitely for Alberta for demand within the province of Alberta.”

“We have doubled our demand for electricity over the last 20 years and at high level we’re forecasting we’re going to double it again over the next 20 years.”

Asked why there is such opposition in some corners to the projects, Retzer believes it is partly because of the scale of the investment being proposed following decades of little transmission growth.

“We haven’t done a lot of build over the last 10 to 20 years, so this is something different. It’s part of the evolution of Alberta. We’ve grown a lot and we’re expected to grow a lot more.”

The Alberta Utilities Commission is hosting a number of public presentations for both the Eastern and Western Transmission Lines beginning next week.

Besides the critical projects, AESO is also continually looking at where other upgrades are needed. There are 250 such small and regional projects on the books, including a proposed upgrade in the Red Deer region, between Didsbury and Wetaskiwin.

Information was sent out to local residents recently on plans to upgrade power lines and add substations to meet a growth in electricity demand that could reach 3.5 per cent a year for the next decade.

About 150 km of new and rebuilt transmission line could be added in the Hwy 2 corridor from Didsbury to Wetaskiwin and another 100 km of existing line salvaged.

An application is expected to be submitted to the Alberta Utilities Commission this spring. A series of upcoming open houses will be he held to discuss the need for new transmission upgrading in the Red Deer region, beginning in Red Deer on Tuesday.

Retzer said AESO must first determine the need for the upgrades and make an application to the Alberta Utilities Commission. If the project gets the go ahead, AltaLink, which owns the lines will file an application for detailed line routes and substation sites. It is too early to say what sort of upgrades are contemplated and whether new routes will be involved.

The following is a list of information sessions in Central Alberta on power line projects:

Red Deer Region Transmission Development (possible 240-kilovolt upgrades Didsbury to Wetaskiwin)

Open House (All 4 to 8 p.m.)

• Tuesday – Red Deer, at Black Knight Inn, 2929 50th Ave.

• Wednesday – Innisfail, at Royal Canadian Legion, 5108 49th Ave.

• Thursday – Ponoka, at Royal Canadian Legion, 3911 Hwy 2A

• March 2 – Didsbury, at Didsbury Memorial Complex, 1702 21st Ave.

• March 3 – Red Deer, Holiday Inn 67, 6500 67th St.

• March 4 – Sylvan Lake, Sylvan Lake Community Centre, 4725 43rd St.

Western Alberta Transmission Line

(500-kilovolt Edmonton to Calgary)

Presentation followed by question and answer session

• Tuesday – Warburg, 7 p.m. at Warburg Community Hall, 5435 50A Ave.

• Wednesday – Rimbey, 7 p.m. at Rimbey Community Centre,

5109 54th St.

• Thursday – Red Deer, 7 p.m. at Holiday Inn 67, 6500 67th St.

• March 1 – Ponoka, 7 p.m. at Kinsmen Community Centre

Eastern Alberta Transmission Line

(500-kilovolt Edmonton to Calgary)

Presentation followed by question and answer session

• March 16 – Hanna, 7 p.m. at Royal Canadian Legion,

224 Second Ave. West

The Alberta government has approved four critical transmission projects as identified by the Alberta Electric System Operator


• Two new high-voltage direct current lines between Edmonton and Calgary. A 500-kilovolt line to be built by AltaLink would run down the west side of the province roughly on a line with Rimbey. On the east side of the province, ATCO Electric is planning a 500-kilovolt line on line with Hanna and Castor.

• A double-circuit transmission line is also planned between Edmonton and the Heartland area near Fort Saskatchewan to carry power to upgraders.

• Two new transmission lines are planned between Edmonton and Fort McMurray.

• A substation in Calgary will be built to provide more reliable service to south Calgary.

What stage the Central Alberta projects are at:

Western Transmission Line

Preferred route and an alternate chosen in December

Application expected to be filed with Alberta Utilities Commission in early 2011

Public hearings this summer

Decision expected by end of year

Construction could start 2012

Eastern Transmission Line

Preferred route and alternate chosen in January

Application to be filed with Alberta Utilities Commission in spring 2011

Public hearings this summer

Decision expected later this year

Construction could start 2012

Total estimated cost of the projects: $3.4 billion

Estimated impact on average monthly power bills: $3.39

Approximate breakdown of power use: industrial 61 per cent; commercial 19 per cent; residential 16 per cent; farm four per cent

Total power generation in Alberta: 12,700 megawatts

Estimated new power generation required over next 20 years: 11,500 megawatts (2,000 megawatts expected to be retired over same period)

Source: AESO

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