12/07/2012 03:41 EST

Western Alberta Transmission Line Approved: Critics Charge Will Only Serve To Export Power To U.S.


The route for a much maligned, and often controversial, $1.5 billion Western Alberta Transmission line has been approved by the Alberta Utilities Commission.

The route would see the transmission line run north-south approximately 350 kilometres from west of Edmonton to an area just east of Calgary, in the Langdon area.

AltaLink Management Ltd., a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin, (TSX:SNC), will build the line and SNC-Lavalin is expected to perform the engineering, procurement and construction portion of the project.

Commission spokesman Jim Law says more than 60 per cent of the approved route parallels existing lines, minimizing the project’s visual and environmental effects and disturbance of land.

AltaLink president and CEO Scott Thon says the countless hearings and meetings, dozens of witnesses, and thousands of documents and exhibits were worth it.

He says AltaLink hopes to switch on the line in the spring of 2015, with shovels in the ground early next year.

"This is the critical backbone in our electricity system and we're getting a chance to make sure that it maintains its reliability," Thon said.

"And we really want to thank the landowners who really stepped up and engaged with us. This is a lot of work and it's something that's important for our province."

Both the line, and the process leading to it, have been heavily criticized by landowners, opposition parties and even Calgary's own electricity provider Enmax.

If approved Bill 8 will reverse Bill 50, which gave the government the right to approve transmission projects without an independent needs assessment.

A number of local residents stood up against Bill 50, saying the government should not have the power to push through projects without public discussion or independent review.

We agree wholeheartedly. It is very dangerous for the government to give itself the ability to build billions of dollars worth of infrastructure without going through a number of regulated, and independent, steps to determine if it is necessary.

Airdrie City View - Editorial

Enmax has been vocal about what they deem is an expensive fix that may not be required:

While there is no doubt the province needs additional infrastructure to meet its growing demand for electricity, large transmission lines may not be the best choice. Alberta consumers deserve a comprehensive public evaluation of all viable options to meet their need for reliable power, including new transmission lines, generation located next to major loads, and voluntary load curtailment (also known as “demand response”). The benefits of evolving technologies such as micro-generation and advanced metering must also be considered. If it turns out, based on a comprehensive evaluation, that large transmission lines are the best option, they should be built. On the other hand, if other technically, environmentally, and socially acceptable alternatives can be developed at a lower cost, Alberta’s Transmission Regulation should support those alternatives over transmission.

The Wildrose Party also came out swinging after the announcement was made Friday. The transmission line process was a hot-button issue during the last provincial election and the opposition wasted no time in launching a well-aimed "told you so," salvo at the province.

The Wildrose, as well as landowners and other opposition parties, have sounded the alarm in the past that the transmission line is simply the first step in exporting electricity from Alberta, to power-starved western states south of the border and one that will lead to higher costs for consumers, as it is the taxpayer who will foot the bill for the new infrastructure.

“The approval of this line is yet another example of the colossal failure of Bill 50 and will mean even higher electricity bills for Alberta consumers," said WRP energy critic Gary Bikman.

“It’s troubling to see the Alberta Utilities Commission reject the constitutional arguments brought forth concerning federal jurisdiction over the export of electricity and continue down this path of building unnecessary and expensive transmission lines.

"It’s especially troubling given that AltaGas just days ago filed for a license to export electricity using this very line from the Wabamun area to the United States," he added.

Thon says the new line will add about $1.50 a month to the average residential power bill when it comes into service.

But he adds it will also result in about a $3 a month savings to bills by making the grid more efficient while driving increased competition in the generation market.

See below for a details on SNC-Lavalin's recent scandalous history.

-With Files From CP

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Pierre Duhaime