Powerline skirmishes still part of the Alberta picture

There was a time in Alberta when power companies would decide where to install main transmission lines without concern for the landowners

There was a time in Alberta when power companies would decide where and when they would install main transmission lines without a thought of concern for the affected landowners. In the past, most landowners would only become aware of any plans when surveyors showed up and a land agent came knocking on the door.

In those days, there was no intent to discuss anything with the owner about the actual lines — just how much compensation you would get for crossing your property. There was a standard schedule of fees as to access and impact and little room for deviation from what was established by precedent.

Sure, exceptions were made if the lines crossed close to, or over buildings — it was expected that if buildings had be removed or you had to find a new home, the appropriate compensation was offered. But there was no thought of altering the route. There was a plan and it was going to be completed.

I recall, at times, home landowners would put up some resistance, but threats of legal action usually changed their minds along with some extra cash. Part of the rationale folks had back then was that new transmission lines were needed as the population expanded.

Alberta back then did not have an export mentality when it came to generating power. That was unlike B.C., where massive dams were built to generate power for sale to export customers, mostly in the U.S. There was some thought back then that with the province’s massive coal deposits, that perhaps plants should be built for export purposes, but the economics were dubious at best.

Then, starting about 15 years ago, as the electricity business began to be deregulated, new long-range plans began to be developed for power transmission in this province. There was even talk about a nuclear power plant to serve the oil sands. Much of the discussion behind the plans was that new lines would make the whole system more efficient.

The provincial government and its industry regulators, along with transmission line and power companies, had a cosy relationship, so vast schemes were more or less approved. The government of the day felt so confident that it even began a series of public meetings and forums to discuss the benefits of all the new lines that stretched the length and breadth of the province.

But as it turned out, times had changed with landowners and lobby groups becoming a lot more vocal about the where and why of those new lines. When these same folks began to launch lawsuits and media campaigns, the line companies and their government allies were shocked that their actions were being questioned. The former Stelmach government, to thwart such citizen effrontery, even gave cabinet the final power to decide where major transmission lines would go and limited court access on the matter by landowners.

That original action helped launch the property-rights revolution in the countryside, which has given the ruling PC government so much political grief. What citizens, landowners and lobby groups were starting to discover was that there appeared to be a hidden agenda in regard to many new transmission lines — they were being built with power exports in mind. That was particularly clear in southern Alberta, where new lines were being built at an accelerated rate to link up with new lines in Montana.

When it was discovered that much of this was being done to accommodate additional loads of wind power for export, it served to aggravate the situation. Because wind power is just not economic and requires considerable backup generation in reserve, most felt the taxpayer was going to get the shaft one way or another.

From that aspect, resistance was inevitable. The usual response from the commercial interests involved was to launch a combination of lawsuits, PR campaigns and more cash to the holdouts.

What they did not seem to want to do was engage in some real-time honesty. To add insult, plans were recently released of even more new lines in light of new wind farm schemes. Perhaps if all the parties involved, including the government, had stated that those transmission lines and others are indeed designed to export wind power and at what cost and benefit, landowners might have been in a better position to make decisions. However, it seems those transmission lines will be built and damn the landowners and taxpayers.

Fortunately, those affected are not giving up and the legal battles continue.

Will Verboven  is Editor of Alberta Farmer