Powering up the debate

The power line decision now made, courtesy of a panel appointed by Premier Alison Redford, can Alberta simply get down to the business of building these projects worth $3 billion?

The power line decision now made, courtesy of a panel appointed by Premier Alison Redford, can Alberta simply get down to the business of building these projects worth $3 billion?

Likely not, and that’s a good thing. As critical as a stable power supply is to Alberta’s future development, and as expensive and finicky as transmission is, we must get this right.

Far too many questions remain about the clumsy stickhandling the Stelmach government did to try to force through the two additions to the Alberta electrical grid.

And far too many questions remain about the legacy of faulty legislation that was established by that same government in order to ease the process initially. Bill 50 should be repealed.

All of that will no doubt be part of many provincial election forum debates this spring. The Progressive Conservatives will — and should ­— be put on the spot about the whole sorry process.

But this week, a four-member panel appointed by Redford, the Critical Transmission Review Committee, announced that the two north-south lines were “reasonable.”

The projects are expected to take three years to complete and are intended to fill Alberta’s transmission needs for the next 50 years (although some observers are already saying the projects will only answer our needs for 30 years). They will cost Albertans about $3 a month on their residential power bills.

Now it’s up to the cabinet to endorse the panel’s recommendations, then to hand the ball to the Alberta Utilities Commission to get up and running. In the past, decisions on such proposals belonged to the AUC and not cabinet (until former premier Ed Stelmach fiddled with the structure). The panel this week recommended that we return to that process, making the decision-making far more open and less prone to political manipulation.

Once the two projects are in the hands of the AUC, the debate about the two routes can renew in earnest.

That process must be open, inclusive and clean (i.e. no spying, as in previous hearings).

AltaLink’s 500-kilovolt line would run from west of Edmonton to just east of Calgary. The 350-km line is the most contentious of the two projects and every route proposal has met with significant resistance.

ATCO Electric’s 500-kilovolt line would run from east of Edmonton to Brooks, and cover 500 km. It will traverse land that is less arable and less densely populated, so the proposed routes here have been less contentious.

ATCO is already examining hydroelectric projects on the Slave and Athabasca rivers to feed the east line.

ATCO’s generation plans help highlight the rest of the problem.

Federal regulations governing carbon emissions — and common sense — mean that coal-fired electricity generation is on the way out. Within 20 years, alternate sources should have replaced all of Alberta’s coal-fired plants.

Electricity can only be generated through other energy sources and it can’t be stored in significant amounts. In other words, it’s fussy and expensive.

And to this point, most power generation in Alberta contributes significantly to our carbon footprint. Of the total generating capacity in Alberta, almost half now comes from coal and almost half from natural gas. The remaining small portion comes from hydroelectric sources, wind, biomass, waste heat and fuel oil. In all, 85 per cent of Alberta’s electricity comes from non-renewable sources — sources that leave a large carbon footprint.

So approval of the new transmission lines is but one step in the process to re-energizing Alberta’s power grid. Let’s hope Redford’s approach to the problems is more inclusive and enlightened than Stelmach’s.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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