Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Western power line sparking interest among provinces

But no discussions currently on the go

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Saskatchewan and Alberta are open to the idea of a huge western power line connecting Manitoba Hydro dams to the oilsands, but it's up to Manitoba to make a pitch.

"There are no discussions now about this sort of project," said James Parker, a spokesman for Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall's government. "But the government of Saskatchewan would be willing to discuss a proposal if one came forward."

Mike Feenstra, spokesman for Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes, said the same. The Alberta government is familiar with the idea floated recently by Manitoba Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, but hasn't considered any of the pros and cons.

"If there is a more comprehensive proposal, we're happy to do that," said Feenstra, adding the idea is consistent with Alberta Premier Alison Redford's hopes for a more integrated national energy system.

In the weeks since he lost his cabinet seat, Fletcher has penned a series of editorials arguing a power line connecting the Nelson River to the oilsands in northeastern Alberta could help replace dirty coal power across the Prairies and cast a greener shade on Alberta's oilpatch, making the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry bitumen from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, more palatable for U.S. President Barack Obama.

A power line from Manitoba and Alberta would also diversify Manitoba's export sales, add to reliability, create hundreds of jobs and form the beginnings of a cross-Canada transmission system.

But, time is tight. Ottawa is about to announce the details of its new $70-billion infrastructure fund, which earmarks $4 billion for regional projects of national significance. If the three Prairie provinces want to make a pitch for a power line, they need to get busy.

Designing such a line would start from scratch, because Manitoba Hydro has done no preliminary engineering work or route planning for a western line aside from some decades-old studies for a southern line. Even shorter routes, such as the connecting line being built into the United States, require significant regulatory and planning work.

Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider said the utility would also need to ensure the stability of the transmission system, the compatibility of three provincial power systems and make sure the cost of the line wouldn't outstrip the value of Manitoba's power in the short- and long-term.

It's not clear there would be time to cobble together a proper pitch for federal cash.

"If there's federal money on the table, make time," said Progressive Conservative MLA Ron Schuler, the opposition's energy critic. "I think going west makes immense sense."

Schuler said the Tories might favour a more southern route to start with, but he encouraged the province to begin discussions with Saskatchewan and Alberta.

He said it makes sense for Manitoba Hydro to diversify its export market so it's not as dependent on sales to the United States, which have been weak in recent years.

The NDP government says it would welcome federal support for an improved east-west grid, but major new transmission links need a customer to champion them, which is why the province has tended to look south.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2013 A6

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