07/04/2012 09:33 EDT | Updated 09/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Manitoba premier travels north to christen new $1.6B dam south of Thompson

THOMPSON, Man. - Premier Greg Selinger is travelling to Manitoba’s north to christen the province’s newest hydroelectric project.

Manitoba Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider said the first of the $1.6-billion Wuskwatim dam's three huge turbines began churning out power on June 22.

The 200-megawatt generating station on the Burntwood River, about 45 kilometres southwest of Thompson, has taken six years to build.

It was built to supply more power to Hydro’s northern customers and the domestic market.

Wuskwatim is the first hydroelectric project in which Manitoba Hydro has an aboriginal community as an equity partner.

Hydro and the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) have formed the Wuskwatim Power Limited Partnership, which owns the generating station.

“It’s a big deal for the water to hit the turbine blades,” Schneider said. “There’s a lot that could go wrong. You want to make sure all your electrical equipment is working right and that the mechanical aspects of it are good.”

It’s estimated the dam’s profits will earn up to $40 million a year when it’s fully operating and the goal is for NCN to own 33 per cent of the dam.

NCN will use that money to build new houses and roads and send young people to school in southern Manitoba, among other things.

Hydro is using a similar process in building the $5.6-billion Keeyask generating station on the Lower Nelson River, a project more than twice the size of Wuskwatim. Hydro is working with four First Nations on a joint-ownership agreement. Keeyask is to be built to export surplus power to Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Selinger’s trip Thursday to mark the Wuskwatim opening comes after Hydro’s export revenue forecast came in lower than previously anticipated. It’s expecting a $1 billion drop in export revenues over the next decade, compared to the last forecast, and a $4 billion drop over the next 20 years, compared to prior estimates.

The drop is blamed on the poor U.S. economy, lower export prices and an abundance of cheap natural gas.

Selinger and Hydro have said those market factors won’t last indefinitely and won’t delay the Keeyask construction — site preparation has already begun — nor the proposed $5-billion Conawapa generating station, also on the Lower Nelson River, and the new $3.28-billion Bipole III transmission line.

Hydro’s southern customer, Minnesota Power, is also planning ahead and recently submitted a proposal to build a 500-kilovolt line — more than double the load first planned — from the Manitoba border to Duluth, Minn., to deliver more Manitoba-made power to its customers.

(Winnipeg Free Press)