New transmission advances speed up -- On a roll in Alberta

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Alberta wind energy producers waiting for a way to get their electricity to market got a long awaited boost last month when the Canadian province's electricity regulator put its stamp of approval on critical transmission upgrades in the south-west. The Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) granted a permit-to-construct and license-to-operate (P&L) to Altalink, the transmission system operator in the region, for a new C$133 million, double circuit 240 kV line, running from Pincher Creek to Lethbridge. It will have the capacity to transport energy from about 1000 MW of wind plant.

The line is the first major transmission project approved in southern Alberta in more than 20 years. Regulators originally approved the need for the upgrades back in May 2005 and since then it has been caught up in the thorny process of putting together a detailed siting plan. Altalink's Scott Schreiner says the AUC approval is a big step forward. "Now we can get to work on doing what we do, which is building, owning and operating these lines, which is good news."

Schreiner says Altalink still has to secure land easements and finalise construction contracts, but he expects the new facilities to be up and operating in the second quarter of 2010. "We've got a few things to knock off the page before we start putting steel in the ground, so we're not expecting construction to start for a number of months," he says.

The AUC decision came quickly after a December public hearing into the application. "We are really, really happy to see that efficient turnaround. I think, at least we hope, it speaks to an increase in efficiency at the AUC. It looks like they are addressing these things very seriously," says Jason Edworthy from Calgary's TransAlta Wind. The company is dependent on grid upgrades to take power from two 66 MW wind projects it is constructing in the region, one to come on line by the end of this year and the second in the first quarter of 2010.

More upgrades

The utilities commission is considering more transmission upgrades designed to connect thousands of megawatts of wind across the southern part of the province. The Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) filed an application in December for a C$1.83 billion 240 kV loop that will gather output from a series of so-called "wind interest zones" in the region. (Windpower Monthly, February 2009). The AUC has scheduled a public hearing on June 22 to consider whether the new transmission is needed. Once the AUC approves the need for the new lines, Altalink will have to put together a detailed siting plan and apply for a P&L.

Schreiner says the loop system is a much bigger project than the Pincher Creek to Lethbridge line. "We'll be working with the AESO and closely with landowners again as we get ready for the next steps."

With the south in hand, the AESO is turning its sights to the need for new grid upgrades in the east central region. It has applications for more than 1500 MW of wind energy in the area, about 700 MW of which it expects to be built in the next decade. In addition, demand in the region is expected to double over the next ten years, driven by large pipeline and industrial loads. "The existing transmission system in this region, however, is at capacity and cannot carry any additional electricity," says the AESO.

Edworthy notes the shift in AESO's focus from the south to east central Alberta. He says the wind industry is moving from the south for a number of reasons. "It is partly a result of prospecting activities not unlike we've seen in past decades in oil and gas. You find good wind sites where you didn't know they were, just like with oil and gas." Improvements in technology means developers can exploit those less robust wind regimes very effectively, he adds. Edworthy also points to research showing that spreading out projects into different wind regimes can help smooth variability. "The industry is responding to the requests and needs of the system for geographic diversity."

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