11/01/2011 04:38 EDT | Updated 01/01/2012 05:12 EST

Power up: Utilities commission OKs controversial power line near Edmonton

EDMONTON - Alberta's electricity regulator has given the green light to a controversial big-ticket transmission line to run around the provincial capital's eastern edge.

The Alberta Utilities Commission said in a news release Tuesday that, with minor changes, the $596-million Heartland Transmission Line "is in the public interest having regard to the social and economic effects of the project and its effects on the environment."

The decision comes two years after the commission was directed by the Alberta government to find the most cost-effective route for the substation and 240-kilovolt line, which is to run power to the expanding industrial area northeast of Edmonton.

Controversy dogged the project from the start because then-premier Ed Stelmach's cabinet used new legislation to bypass the usual public hearings required to ensure the extra power was actually needed.

Instead, cabinet unilaterally decreed that the Heartland power was critical. That left the commission to determine only if a line could be built that was both safe and cost-effective.

Energy Minister Ted Morton said he's pleased with the decision.

"I'm glad it's been decided. The process moves on," he said.

"People who are unhappy with the decision ... have the right to appeal to the (commission) or to the Court of Appeal."

The Heartland line is one of four transmission projects approved under the fast-track rules that were brought in as Bill 50.

Another project — a substation to provide backup power to a new hospital in south Calgary — is also going through.

The other two projects are proposed lines running from the north to the south and southeast. They were put on hold by Premier Alison Redford last month pending a review on whether the power is actually needed.

The utilities commission has suspended public hearings on those lines. The hearings were to have started in the coming weeks and months.

Politicians in the municipalities surrounding Edmonton argued against the Heartland line on the grounds the power isn't needed.

In a letter this week to Morton, the Heartland Industrial Association said the economic environment has changed dramatically in the last year.

Linda Osinchuk, mayor of Strathcona County and chairwoman of the association, said that business has slowed and more users are getting power through co-generation.

She also said that the Heartland line was to support the two north-south lines that are now on hold.

"Proceeding with only the Heartland portion of the system could result in incompatible design and installation with the remaining and future grid network," said Osinchuk in the letter.

Morton countered that industry in the region is fluid and will eventually need more power. He also said that while the two north-south lines are on hold, there will eventually be a need for more north-south power that the Heartland line will plug into.

"Even under the lowest-growth scenario you still need that additional transmission into the Heartland area."

Lawyer Keith Wilson, who fought the line on behalf of some of the opponents, said there's a difference between prudent planning and stupid planning. He wondered why the government would pursue a 40-year line when all the power from it may not be needed for another 50 years.

"It's not where the line is going. It's the fact the evidence is so clear that this is a massive overbuild (and) grossly excessive for any type of power demand that might be needed for the life of the line," he said.

"I just can't understand why the government is hanging so hard onto this thing."

Opposition critics say the Heartland line is one of several unnecessary transmission lines. Once the lines are built at taxpayer expense, they say, power companies will export the excess power to the United States at a hefty profit.

Detractors also say Bill 50 is dangerous legislation because it removes critical checks and balances and could lead to debilitatingly high power bills and reduced investment.

"There are lots of legitimate concerns relative to the imposition of this line," said NDP Leader Brian Mason.

"I think those public concerns were largely ignored today, and I think a lot of people will be very angry."

Some residents told the commission that if the line were to be built, some of it should go underground for health and safety reasons. Underground lines are considerably more expensive than above-ground versions. The commission rejected underground lines as "not in the public interest."

Opposition Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman sat in the government caucus when the decisions were made. He was later kicked out for protesting government inaction in health care.

Sherman said caucus jumped on the Heartland line not after study and debate, but after Stelmach came back from meeting with electricity officials who warned him of potential power shortages.

"They talked about brownouts and they scared everybody in caucus into voting for it. That's how the decision was made — by an anecdote told by the energy minister and the premier," said Sherman.

"It was pushed through cabinet, pushed through caucus and pushed onto the people."