Wires provider dropped the ball -- Transmission in Alberta

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The transmission provider in Alberta's windy southwest "dropped the ball" in getting grid upgrades done for new wind power in the Canadian province, says one of its largest project developers. The accusation is levelled at Altalink, owner and operator of most of Alberta's transmission system, by TransAlta Wind's Kevin Van Koughnett. His remark comes after Altalink decided to restart the secondary permitting process for a 240 kV line between Pincher Creek and Lethbridge that was originally expected to be in service by now.

The need for the new line was approved by the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) back in 2005. At that time the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) gave the job of getting it built to Altalink. More than two years later, Altalink filed a new application with the EUB on August 10 for a permit-to-construct and license-to-operate (P&L).

"Needless to say the wind industry is frustrated because the needs application was approved in May 2005 and here we are over two years later and nothing seems to have been done," says TransAlta Wind's Kevin Van Koughnett. "The AESO direct assigned the project to Altalink and it would not be pushing it to say Altalink dropped the ball. The facilities were supposed to have been in service in 2006." To make matters worse, landowner opposition in the area will likely push the P&L application to a public hearing. "My view is that the line should now be expected to be in service late in 2009 or the first half of 2010," says Van Koughnett.

Altalink's Scott Schreiner says it took longer than expected to get some of the approvals for its preferred route, which takes the line across Piikani First Nation and Blood Tribe reserve lands. "The federal approval process for going over any federal land is comprehensive and extensive," he says. "That included reaching the agreement with the First Nations and with the Piikani in particular, because there was an election in the middle of it all where a completely new chief and council were elected. That meant while we weren't necessarily starting at square one again, we were pretty early in the squares." The company finally reached agreement with both First Nations in July and has now applied to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada for the necessary permits.

Third time

Altalink had already filed two separate applications with the EUB for the east and west sections of the work, but has replaced those with the new one. The current application includes two alternatives to the preferred route, one that bypasses both reserves and one that goes through the Blood reserve but avoids Piikani lands. "We wanted to bring one comprehensive application that includes all three alternative routes and all the information that we had collected and analysed on each of those routes," explains Schreiner.

Altalink began looking at alternatives to its preferred route in late 2006 -- as soon as it became clear they might be required, says Schreiner. But Van Koughnett says that process should have begun much earlier. "In my view Altalink should have made a decision by December 2005 that if they did not have agreements with the reserves then they should have gone around them."

The route through both reserves is shorter, affects the fewest landowners, has least environmental impact and is lowest cost, says Schreiner, so remains the preferred option. It is 89 kilometres long with an estimated cost of C$130 million, states Altalink. Alternative 1 through the Blood lands is 133 kilometres at a cost of C$171.5 million and Alternative 2, bypassing both reserves, is 122 kilometres and C$165.1 million.

Red hot costs

When the upgrades were originally proposed in 2004, they carried a price tag of about C$80 million. Alberta's red-hot economy is part of the reason for the jump, says Schreiner. "The cost of steel, the cost of concrete, the cost of labour are big pressures on the project," says Schreiner. "Also the other thing is that there has been a bit of a scope change since the original cost. Originally the line was not planned to be double circuit between Pincher Creek and Peigan. Since then the AESO has changed the scope to make that a double circuit line."

The AESO's application suggests a possible in-service date of late 2008 for the preferred route and fall 2009 for the alternative options. Like Van Koughnett, Schreiner expects there will be a public hearing on the application. If a hearing is held this fall, he says, a decision could be expected in early 2008.

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