AUC approves route for EATL

The Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) on Nov. 15 approved the route for the Eastern Alberta Transmission Line project (EATL), a 311-mile, 500-kV HVDC line with associated converter stations and facilities that will connect the Gibbons, Alberta area northeast of Edmonton with the Brooks area southeast of Calgary.

“The AUC has approved portions of the route preferred by the applicant, and in several cases, portions of the route that the applicant submitted as alternative routing,” the AUC said in a statement announcing the decision.

Overall, based on land-use, social, cost and environmental considerations, the route selected by the AUC was found to be both in the public interest and superior to other potential routes, the AUC’s statement continued.

The AUC also credited the positive contributions made by intervening landowners and landowner groups.

“In some cases those alternatives were developed from landowner suggestions,” an AUC spokesperson told TransmissionHub Nov. 16. “About 175 kilometers were aligned with either landowner-generated or preferred alternatives.”

The approval of ATCO Electric’s C$1.6bn (US$1.6bn) transmission line through eastern Alberta marks a major step in the long-awaited expansion of the province’s electricity grid.

The cost of the line will be passed on to Alberta ratepayers starting in 2015 and is expected to add C$1.60 per month to their utility bills, according to the project’s developer.

Construction could be completed in two years.

The AUC is also considering the route for the Western Alberta Transmission Line project (WATL), a C$1.4bn (US$1.4bn) HVDC project to be built by Altalink. That decision is expected before the end of the year, the AUC spokesperson said.

The EATL, the WATL, and the Heartland transmission project were all declared “critical transmission infrastructure” (CTI) by the Legislative Assembly of Alberta through Bill 50, passed in 2009 under former Premier Ed Stelmach. Accordingly, the AUC did not evaluate the need for the lines but took the position that it was only authorized to, and responsible for, deciding on the lines’ routings.

That interpretation, however, is at the center of a matter that remains in the hands of the Alberta Court of Appeal.

On Oct. 12, the court heard arguments about whether the AUC should have conducted a needs assessment before approving the Heartland transmission project in November 2011 (Case No. 1103-0304AC). Opponents argued that the AUC was not only authorized but required to conduct a needs assessment, regardless of the determination of need provided in Bill 50.

In his March 28 decision granting opponents permission to appeal, Justice Ronald Berger agreed the question needed to be addressed. “In my opinion, it is imperative in the interests of certainty and consistency that this court pronounce upon the issue,” Berger wrote.

However, since hearing the arguments, the justices “reserved their decision” on the matter, meaning that a decision will be issued at an undetermined future date. At present, the court has given no indication when a decision might be forthcoming.

When it is issued, however, it is possible that the decision could be applied to all CTI projects, as the role of the AUC would be applied similarly to all CTI projects.

In all, four projects were designated CTI under Bill 50: the Heartland line, the EATL and WATL which the Alberta Electric System Operator regard as a single project, a substation in the southeast area of Calgary, and a 500-kV Edmonton to Fort McMurray transmission line. Although the substation and the Edmonton to Fort McMurray transmission line have not yet risen to the surface of public discussion, they could also be affected by the pending court ruling.

It is, however, unlikely that any other projects beyond those listed in Bill 50 will be affected.

Earlier this year, in response to a report by the Critical Transmission Review Committee, a blue-ribbon panel appointed to review the need for the EATL, WATL, and Heartland lines, the provincial government acknowledged that Bill 50 had served its purpose and was no longer needed.

“[W]ith the ‘catch-up’ provided by the CTI projects and improvements to the regulatory approval process, the Cabinet authority to approve future CTI is no longer required,” then-Energy Minister Ted Morton said at the time.

On Oct. 23, Minister of Energy Ken Hughes introduced Bill 8, which would effectively repeal Bill 50, limiting its impact to the four projects listed in the legislation and returning responsibility for considering the need for all future transmission projects to the AUC.