POLITICS
01/31/2012 01:09 EST | Updated 04/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta's Wildrose party says power companies should jolt input for new lines

EDMONTON - Alberta Wildrose party Leader Danielle Smith says power companies should help pay the freight if they want billions of dollars worth of new electricity lines.

Smith, introducing her party's pre-election power-grid policy Tuesday, also said the governing Tories have botched planning so badly they need to go back to square one.

"We've heard loud and clear from Alberta ratepayers that they simply don't believe that the plan for $14 billion or $16 billion worth of new transmission is what's needed for the Alberta market," she said.

Smith said a Wildrose government would scrap a law that grants cabinet unilateral authority to bypass the public and order new lines. Instead, she said, it would put approval back in the hands of taxpayers and independent analysts.

"We had a perfectly good process before when we had consumer groups and landowner groups able to discuss what was being proposed.

"We want to return to that system."

Fees for the new lines could potentially triple that portion of current power bills, she added.

There would also be changes to how electricity is bought and sold, and there would be purchasing options to help consumers bring down their power bills, she said.

The cost of electricity in Alberta reached record highs in January, when consumers had to pay more than 15 cents a kilowatt hour — double the cost in the same period last year.

Power lines — and high power bills — are expected to be key issues in the next provincial election, which, by law, must be held this spring.

The NDP has already launched a petition to urge the government to re-regulate the electricity industry to reduce rising power bills.

Party leader Brian Mason has said deregulating the industry 15 years ago has resulted in predatory pricing for consumers and has acted as a disincentive to organized long-term planning.

Since becoming premier and Tory leader almost four months ago, Redford has taken steps to address public concerns over power use and planning.

Late last year, the Alberta Utilities Commission, at the direction of the province, placed on hold two massive north-south high voltage lines pending an independent review by a panel of academics and electricity experts.

The panel, headed by former University of Alberta board of governors chairman Brian Heidecker, is reviewing the cost of the two lines. It is also looking at the Alberta Electric System Operator's estimates of future power needs.

The panel has already held public hearings and is expected to send its recommendations to Energy Minister Ted Morton by Feb. 10.

One of the projects on hold is AltaLink's Western Alberta Transmission Line. If it goes ahead along the preferred route, it would be a high-voltage, direct-current string of wires attached to cross-hatched lattice towers snaking 350 kilometres from an area west of Edmonton to east of Calgary.

The second is ATCO's Eastern Transmission Line. If it goes ahead, it, too, would be a 500-kilovolt direct-current line of lattice towers. It would run for 500 kilometres from northeast of Edmonton down the eastern spine of the province to Brooks.

A third, the Heartland line, was approved by Redford late last year. It is to run around the eastern edge of Edmonton and supply power to the industrial heartland around Fort Saskatchewan.

Area reeves say the power isn't needed, but Redford disagrees.

The Electric System Operator says the power is needed from all three lines for an economy reliant on resource extraction and heavy industry and for a population closing in on four million.

Opponents say the extra power isn't needed and would be equivalent to expanding the four-lane divided highway between Edmonton and Calgary to 32 lanes.

Political rivals say the extra lines are a cynical cash grab by power companies that would use taxpayer money to build an estimated $14 billion in unnecessary infrastructure and then sell the excess juice to the United States at a hefty profit.

"I have no problems with export (to the U.S.)," said Smith. "But I do have a problem with Alberta ratepayers being stuck with the tab."

Heidecker's power panel has also been asked to make recommendations on any changes to the Bill 50 legislation that has seen the government get an earful from landowners, business owners and municipal politicians since it passed in 2009 under former premier Ed Stelmach.

The law fundamentally changed how power lines are approved. Under previous rules, power companies that wanted new lines had to prove to taxpayers and analysts, via public hearings, that the power was needed. The checks and balances were seen as critical, given taxpayers bear all costs of the multibillion-dollar projects.

But the new law transferred that decision-making right to cabinet, which now has authority to unilaterally order power lines if it deems the need critical.

Stelmach's cabinet approved the three lines now in dispute.