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Alberta Conservative bills firm, fast power line despite criticism

30 September 2009 1,150 views No Comment

CALGARY – The Alberta government doesn’t plan to alter a controversial bill designed to hasten power line projects despite a growing campaign to quash the proposed legislation.

Political debate of the bill, introduced in June, is expected to ramp up when the legislature resumes late next month.

All three opposition parties are calling on the Conservatives to scrap proposed rule changes that would grant the government authority to decide when additional electrical transmission lines are required. Under existing rules, the need for these massive energy projects– whose multibillion-dollar construction costs are ultimately footed by electricity consumers — is supposed to be scrutinized through a public regulatory hearing.

“We don’t support the dismantling of a regulatory system designed to . . . hear people’s complaints and opinions and the science behind whether we need them or not,” Calgary Liberal MLA Kent Hehr said.

“The government is usurping the voice of the people,”

While NDP Leader Brian Mason and Calgary-Glenmore Wildrose Alliance MLA-elect Paul Hinman suggest the Tories should gird for a battle in the legislature over Bill 50, Alberta Energy spokesman Jerry Bellikka said the department doesn’t plan to change its proposed legislation.

“We’re at the point now where we’re importing so much power to keep the lights on that we have to have a way to get more power through the system to people’s homes and to schools and hospitals and businesses,” Bellikka said.

In a battle paralleling the brewing political fight, several energy players have squared off on the thorny issue of whether erecting two high-voltage transmission lines between Calgary and Edmonton is the best and most cost-effective way to upgrade Alberta’s power grid.

Enmax, which is aggressively lobbying Albertans to sign a petition demanding the Tories quash Bill 50, contends reduced electrical demand along with its plans to build three gas-fired power plants in the Calgary area have cast doubt on the need for the costly transmission projects.

Last week, the city-owned electrical utility launched a web campaign in the province’s two largest cities and took to the streets of downtown Calgary to promote its staunch on maintaining regulatory hearings to assess the need for the planned lines, slated to cost about $3 billion.

“The idea of changing the process to take away the regulator is a really bad idea, especially when there’s so much money at stake,” said Gary Holden, Enmax president and chief executive.

In a bid to counter Enmax’s public campaign, AltaLink– which has been tapped to build one of the power lines–has stepped up efforts to persuade Albertans the reliability of their electrical system is at risk if it isn’t significantly upgraded in the near future. The province’s power grid hasn’t seen a major investment in more than 20 years.

“We would have been in a serious power problem had we not had an economic recession,” Scott Thon, president of transmission owner and operator AltaLink, told the Herald.

Electrical reliability is also a concern for Capital Power, formerly Epcor.

“Our system is at risk in Alberta. There’s more risks of rotating brownouts without the upgrade,” said Bryan DeNeve, vice-president of business development with Capital Power.

“We believe there’s a need to get on and get the infrastructure in place but that’s our view from a generator perspective,” he added. “How to do it, that’s for others to figure out.”

During the summer, the government held information sessions on its planned changes in 20 communities across Alberta, drawing about 502 people in all. Comments from the public forums are still being compiled, Bellikka said.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, are studying the conflicting positions of energy players and planning their attacks on Bill 50.

“Why have we come to times here in Alberta where we can’t go through the due process of law and we can’t go through listening to the people of Alberta?” questioned Hinman.

“This is centralization of power and control.”

Mason called the Conservatives’ proposed changes “undemocratic.” He also raised concern about the impact on consumer electricity bills.

Estimates on how much consumers will pay for transmission upgrades vary widely, ranging from$20 a month averaged over the line’s 40-year lifespan to quadruple current charges.

rdaliesio@theherald. canwest.com

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald

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