02/13/2012 08:21 EST | Updated 04/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Power panel urges Alberta to build two more massive lines to cope with growth

EDMONTON - Alberta needs two more high-voltage power lines and it needs them right now, a government-appointed panel recommended Monday.

Brian Heidecker of the Critical Transmission Review Committee said with Alberta's population and business booming, the lines are a must.

"Alberta has grown by two million people since the last major upgrade to the north-south transmission system," Heidecker told reporters at the legislature.

"Our infrastructure needs to keep pace if we are to be prepared for future population and economic growth."

The cost of the two power lines is about $3 billion. Heidecker says that's about $3 a month on a residential power bill.

"That's about the same as a Starbucks coffee," he said.

"If it isn't worth that much for our kids and our grandkids to have the same opportunities for employment and quality of life here, I'd be surprised if Albertans wouldn't be interested in that kind of a proposal."

The next move will be from provincial Energy Minister Ted Morton, who must decide whether to accept the recommendations and, if so, ask the Alberta Utilities Commission to proceed with the lines.

Morton said he'd respond by the end of the month.

Heidecker's panel was asked two months ago to assess the power requirement projections by the Alberta Electric System Operator to determine if the two lines are needed.

One is AltaLink's Western Alberta Transmission Line. It would see a 500 kilovolt direct current line snake its way 350 kilometres from west of Edmonton at Genessee to an area just east of Calgary.

ATCO Electric is pursuing a similar transmission line that would run 500 km from east of Edmonton down to Brooks.

The lines would double Alberta's current energy capacity.

Critics, including the Wildrose party and the NDP, say the lines are not needed and that the extra capacity, built at taxpayers' expense, would allow power companies to then sell the excess to the U.S. at a profit.

Wildrose critic Paul Hinman said the panel was given the wrong mandate. The panel, he said, should not just have looked at the need for the electricity, but the cost-benefit to the entire system.

"The parameters they were given are wrong," said Hinman.

Industry critic Keith Wilson says the buildup of extra capacity is way too much, essentially building lines with an operational life of 50 years to service power needs 50 years from now.

The Alberta Electric System Operator says it's pleased with the findings of the committee.

"As the organization responsible for providing Albertans with a reliable supply of electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we are pleased with the findings and recommendations included in the report," David Erickson, AESO President and chief executive officer, said in a news release.

"Upgrades are needed in order to preserve the overall reliability of the system."

The lines were two of four fast-tracked three years ago by former premier Ed Stelmach's cabinet under changes to electricity rules contained in Bill 50.

The rules sparked outrage because they allowed government to bypass public hearings and public input into proposed power lines and simply order the lines be built.

When Premier Alison Redford took over last fall, she asked the Alberta Utilities Commission to put the two north-south lines on hold to make sure they were needed. The government then struck Heidecker's panel to conduct public hearings, examine the data, and make a recommendation.

The panel was also asked to review Bill 50, and said the government should revert to the old method of public hearings under the Alberta Utilities Commission, or AUC.

Heidecker said the lines OK'd under Bill 50 were an "extraordinary set of circumstances that served its purpose.

"But we and everybody that we spoke to could not see any need to continue with the government having that authority. It was a better system to have it through the AUC."

NDP Leader Brian Mason said the panel was a "rubber stamp" of government decisions — decisions that could have been challenged before Bill 50.

The two other projects fast-tracked by cabinet include the Heartland Transmission line around east Edmonton supplying power to heavy industry.

The other is a power project for south Calgary and its new hospital.