Confusion reigns as transmission line reviews suspended

The Alberta government made a significant policy U-turn when Premier Alison Redford publicly contradicted her new energy minister's decision to change the overall approach to the construction of the Heartland transmission project.

"At this point, all we have is rumours and conjecture," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"But, no doubt, there are some serious questions that were raised about how the premier handled this issue and those questions will need to be answered."

Premier Redford made a statement at a press conference on Oct. 21 that the application for Heartland transmission project is still moving forward as planned.

About three hours earlier, the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) announced that it was suspending the review process and hearings on the Heartland transmission project, as well as the Western Alberta transmission line and Eastern Alberta transmission line.

Currently, it is not clear how such a miscommunication in public policy occurred and whether this will impact a pending decision on the project.

The public hearing for the Heartland application concluded on July 18 and a decision was anticipated by Oct. 24.

Initially, there was some confusion because it appeared the government was making a major policy change.

At this point, the AUC was planning to issue the decision following the government's review of its approach to critical transmission infrastructure.

As part of this process, the government released a letter on Oct. 19. written by the new Alberta Energy Minister Ted Morton to the chair of the AUC, Willie Grieve.

The AUC also sent a letter to all of the stakeholders for the $580 million Heartland high-voltage transmission line project.

"Minister Morton requested that the commission suspend or adjourn its consideration of the applications for these three projects, including the Heartland application, while the government's review is ongoing," said the AUC letter.

"The outcome of the government's review of its approach to critical transmission infrastructure may or may not have implications for the Heartland application and the commission's consideration of that application. Accordingly, the commission has decided to suspend its consideration of the Heartland application in accordance with the minister's request."

The Heartland application involves the construction of a 500-kilovolt (kV), double-circuit line from existing transmission facilities either west of Edmonton or in southern Edmonton to the Heartland region northeast of Fort Saskatchewan.

The application was submitted by the AltaLink Management Ltd. and EPCOR Distribution and Transmission Inc.

"We look forward to understanding the process that will be undertaken to conduct the review and we will participate accordingly," said an AltaLink press release.

About three hours after the energy ministry released the letter and AltaLink grappled to understand what the decision means, Redford said the Heartland project is still moving forward as planned.

However, the other projects are still suspended.

All three projects were deemed critical infrastructure under the controversial Bill 50 legislation.

During her recent leadership campaign, Redford said placing the Heartland line under Bill 50 was the right government decision.

Bill 50, which was passed in November 2009, created a category called critical transmission infrastructure, which increased cabinet's discretion to plan essential components of the electricity system.

As a result, critics said, the legislation limited public input on plans to construct $14 billion to $20 billion in new power lines in the province.

Instead, the critics insist an independent assessment should be undertaken to determine the need for new lines, rather than allowing cabinet to approve projects.

A group called Responsible Electricity Transmission for Albertans (RETA) has maintained these transmission projects are not required and will cause power bills to skyrocket.

Initially, the Alberta government and the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) said in 2008 that there was a need for the Heartland line, because nine new oilsands upgraders were planned for the Industrial Heartland.

However, today there is only one upgrader planned.

For this reason RETA argues there is no longer a need for the transmission line.

They also said oilsands upgraders that might get built in the Industrial Heartland will co-generate their own electricity.

Journal of Commerce, Wed Oct 26 2011
Byline: Richard Gilbert

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