By Heather Cameron
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Last month, from June 19, 2023 to June 22, 2023, the Alberta Utilities Commission held a virtual public hearing regarding the Vauxhall Area Transmission Development (VATD).
“The purpose of the hearings is to consider the application that AltaLink filed for its Vauxhall Area Transmission Development,” said Amanda Sadleir, Manager of Corporate Communications for AltaLink. “It’s the Vauxhall Area Transmission Development and it actually includes two separate smaller projects within the larger project. One of them is the 610L transmission line replacement, and that involves building a new transmission line and then salvaging a portion of an existing transmission line that’s in the Municipal District of Taber. So we basically need to rebuild that line. It was built in the 1960s and so we just need to rebuild the line. And so, there’s a plan in place to be able to do that. The other portion is the 879L transmission line restoration and that is in Cypress County, and it involves just modifying and replacing structures along the existing transmission line in that area.”
When AltaLink develops a new project, Sadleir said, they submit an application to the Alberta Utilities Commission to review and they make a decision about the project. In that application, Sadleir says, AltaLink includes all of the information about their consultation program that they have with stakeholders along with all of the different pieces of the project that form the project development, different survey work that they’ve done, including engineering studies, and they compile it all into an application that they present to the AUC.
From there, Sadleir says, the Commission reviews the application in a process where the public can participate and it’s an opportunity for anybody that’s interested in the project to come learn a little bit more about it and ask more questions about what is in the application.
“It’s just an open forum that’s part of the Alberta Utilities Commission’s process of reviewing that project,” Sadleir said.
Sadleir said that within the hearing on June 22, there were some interested stakeholders that participated in the hearing, and they had the opportunity to ask questions. One of the participants was Cliff Wallace, a professional biologist, who was serving as an expert witness on behalf of 879L Landowners Group. Wallace presented his opening statement, which was filed on June 21 pertaining to the biodiversity impacts of the proposed 879L transmission line restoration.
“The proposed project is in the dry mixed grassland natural sub-region of Alberta and it’s located in the Northern Great Plains which is a global priority for conservation as noted in World Wildlife Fund’s Global 200 ecoregions,” Wallace said. “The main issues with the project are related to native grassland disturbance and multiple stream crossings. These could be avoided with a new routing process.”
Wallace also spoke about how birds nesting in temperate grasslands are the most rapidly declining group of birds in North America and all through the whole system there’s a more than 50 per cent decline in all grassland species and an 87 per cent decline in species dependent on native grasslands. Throughout his presentation, Wallace outlined how the 879L project would interact with several environmentally significant areas including different native habitats, native grasslands, ephemeral wetlands, seasonal wetlands, and differing water bodies. Along with outlining these concerns, Wallace provided AltaLink with ideas how they could adapt the project to cause the least amount of environmental disruption possible.
“Lastly, I recommend a post-construction monitoring report be submitted to the AUC regarding any significant environmental issues encountered and how they were dealt with or will be dealt with,” Wallace said.
AltaLink responded to the concerns by emphasizing that environmental considerations are always an important part of their project planning and that they do try to mitigate any potential risk there is to the environment that comes forth because of their project work. Those mitigation efforts, AltaLink said, include a program called an Avian Protection Plan in place where they monitor bird activity and put mitigations in place to make sure that they can balance the effect of their projects on the environment where they operate.
“It’s actually very important for us that we get feedback from people as part of our project planning because we take that and it helps us to refine our project and ultimately end up with the solutions that we put together in our application,” Sadleir said. “For the most part, there are concerns or questions that people raise because they just want to know what the impact is to them related to a project. Sometimes it’s related to environmental features on their property that we work with them to try and mitigate those concerns and sometimes it’s visual impacts related to the location of the line near them. And so it’s actually very important for us that we get that feedback from them as part of our project planning because we take that, and it helps us to refine our project and ultimately end up with the solutions that we put together in our application.”
The landowners wanted the 879L transmission line relocated to property lines or the road and AltaLink responded by stating that relocating the transmission line to a new alignment would lessen agricultural and environmental impacts as well as impacts on residential properties. The landowners also expressed concerns in their submissions to the hearing that if the project is approved, the life of the 879L transmission line will effectively be extended with continuous upgrades that will expand the operational life of the line for decades to come. AltaLink responded by stating that they conducted a high-level assessment of looking at rebuilding the line.
“The application set forth requires minor modification to the existing line to meet the AESO (Alberta Electric System Operator) need and that is why we filed it as such,” Patrick McKenna of AltaLink said. “In order to meet the AESO’s need, we’re asked to provide a solution that is, I suppose, the most economical and the most appropriate. We have an existing transmission line that has at least 10 years of life left in it we assess, between 10 and 15, and what we need to do is modify a small amount of those structures in order to meet that need. We are duty bound to use our facilities to the best extent possible. The need to look at an alternate, we did look at that based on initial feedback from landowners, and we did that at a high level as stated in our application and just as a result of that, we understood that the cost to rebuild was going to be significantly more than the cost of making these modifications.”
Heather Beyko, Counsel for Ackroyd LLP then inquired of McKenna as to why AltaLink did not and still has not conducted a detailed, routine assessment for an alternate route. McKenna responded that they did look at an alternate route as a result of stakeholder feedback, but ultimately assessed that such a route was going to be significantly more expensive. McKenna also stated that such an assessment simply was unnecessary due to the fact that the existing facility still had at least 10 years of life.
“We were asked to meet a need, which is increase the capacity of the of the existing line and that’s what we’re able to do with minor modifications to that line,” McKenna said. “With our transmission lines, we got feedback from landowners. Many landowners want lines underground as an example and we do provide feedback to that, we don’t do a detailed assessment of undergrounding on many occasions because we know that the cost of undergrounding typically is 10 times the cost of an overhead solution. We know that in this case the cost of an alternate route was going to be significantly more expensive and at that point the decision was made that it wasn’t appropriate given the cost impacts to do that.”
The AUC also expressed concerns to AltaLink about whether or not AltaLink could guarantee the structures could last 10-15 years and AltaLink admitted there was always the possibility of a caveat.
“A single event is possible or multiple events are possible that could mean that we end up replacing a portion or a large portion of these structures,” McKenna said. “But under normal practices, we will need to rebuild this line in 10 to 15 years.”
Beyko pressed the issue of AltaLink only doing a high-level assessment for a relocation of the 879L transmission line in 10-15 years and AltaLink argued that the project wasn’t a rebuild, but a modification of existing structures and the assessment would be to see if there is a lower impact route.
According to AltaLink, the cost of rebuilding the 879L near Bullshead in 10-15 years would be an estimated $44.3 million in 2034 or $51.4 million in 2039. AltaLink also stated that the 2024 net present value of future rebuild costs are $23.5 million for a rebuild in 10 or $19.9 million for a rebuild in 15 years.
After further review of evidence and discussion, the hearing concluded and the AUC promised to issue a decision regarding the project within 90 days.
“We’ll just wait to hear from the AUC and then if the project is approved, we will get into what construction planning would look like to be able to execute on the project,” Sadleir said. “But no work will be done unless the project is officially approved by the Alberta Utilities Commission.”