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Power on, but no buzz: Hydro, Pallister silent six months after $4.7B Bipole III switched on

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/1/2019 (546 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was one of the biggest construction jobs in North America — a $4.7-billion project that took five years to build — with the laudable goal of increasing the security of Manitobans' power supply.

But there was no public fanfare when Manitoba Hydro flicked the switch to turn on its Bipole III transmission line July 4.

Bipole III

Click to Expand

Length: 1,384 kilometres

Total cost: $4.7 billion

Construction start: August 2013

Project completion: July 4, 2018

Number of towers: 3,076

Number of converter transformers: 20

Person-years of employment: 5,194

Added transmission capacity: 2,000 megawatts

Source: Manitoba Hydro

A story alerting staff was posted on the Crown corporation's internal website. But there was no press release, no ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring beaming politicians and proud corporate executives.

In October, a newsletter distributed to Manitobans along with their Hydro bills heralded the completion of the massive project, which had long been criticized as an NDP "boondoggle" by opponents because of the previous government's controversial decision to alter the transmission line's route and the huge cost increases that accompanied it.

At Manitoba Hydro, those entrusted with keeping the lights turned on in the province celebrated. Until six months ago, more than 70 per cent of the power generated in the province travelled from northern generating stations down two parallel lines in close proximity to each other to the Dorsey converter station in the south.

With only two transmission lines, the security of the province's power supply was always vulnerable to severe weather, forest fires or human error.

If either or both of those lines — or the converter station — had gone out of service for a considerable period of time, Manitobans would have faced a major disruption in their day-to-day lives.

"As soon as Bipole III came into service in July, a number of engineers were doing cartwheels," company spokesman Bruce Owen said Friday, on the six-month anniversary of the line's launch.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister called Bipole III "the biggest boondoggle in the history of Manitoba" while he was leader of the opposition in 2014.


Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister called Bipole III "the biggest boondoggle in the history of Manitoba" while he was leader of the opposition in 2014.

For decades, Manitoba Hydro had considered the construction of a third transmission line to be essential to the long-term security of the province's power supply, regardless of future dam construction or exports. The Keeyask Generating Station — still under construction — would simply have increased the need for greater transmission capacity that was required in any case, Owen said.

Several incidents in recent years have underscored the need for a third line, the latest occurring two years ago when a farmer near Lundar, picking up hay bales, inadvertently backed his tractor into a Bipole II tower, knocking it off its base.

"Fortunately, it was a mild day in February and Manitobans didn't notice," Owen said. Natural gas-fired generating stations in Brandon and Selkirk kicked into service, supplemented by electricity imports, to fill the breach until the line was repaired.

Bipole history

Bipole III increases reliability by adding a third transmission line and two new converter stations. The following are major events from the past few decades that affected power service:

Bipole III increases reliability by adding a third transmission line and two new converter stations. The following are major events from the past few decades that affected power service:

1996: Wind event, 19 towers down knocking out both bipoles for four days; power flowed from U.S. instantaneously. For the first time in history, Manitobans were asked to reduce their non-essential power consumption while Manitoba Hydro worked to fix towers. They did, reducing consumption by eight per cent.

2007: Tornado event — the worst tornado in Canadian history hit the town of Elie, less than 35 kilometres from the Dorsey converter station; loss of Dorsey could mean loss of connection to northern generation for up to three years.

2008: Bipoles I and II tripped out of service because of heavy smoke from forest fires north of Grand Rapids. The outage lasted approximately one hour and isolated 2,000 megawatts (MW) of generation.

2011: Ice event — Bipole I and Bipole II lines were subject to severe icing risk in the northern remote areas due to high river flow conditions causing significant overland flooding. Water froze, lifting towers off their base pins. There were eight broken anchors in the initial assessment. Fifty sites over 112 kilometres were monitored and had ice removed from both the foundations and anchor locations to ensure the reliability of the lines. Both Selkirk and Brandon generating stations were placed on line in order to cover for the reduction in HVDC loading.

2017: A farm tractor backed into a Bipole II tower knocking it off its base. Fortunately, the incident happened during a warm break in February and Manitoba Hydro was able to pick up power from Selkirk and Brandon generating stations and imports. A new tower was installed within two days and connection reestablished.

Source: Manitoba Hydro

Bipole III adds about 2,000 megawatts to Manitoba Hydro's high-voltage, direct current (HVDC) transmission capacity. Each of the three transmission lines generally carry about a third of the load at any one time, Owen said. Variations occur based on power demand, line maintenance and other factors. On Friday morning, Bipole 1 was carrying 1,164 megawatts, Bipole II 1,024 megawatts and Bipole III 805 megawatts.

Unlike its two siblings, which travel a relatively direct route through the Interlake, Bipole III meanders for close to 1,400 kilometres, skirting to the west of Lake Manitoba before slicing through southern Manitoba on its way to the Riel converter station east of Winnipeg.

The longer route was imposed on Hydro by the former NDP government, which refused to allow the corporation to run its line down a far shorter path on the east side of Lake Winnipeg because it was supporting communities that wanted the area declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The government's decision sparked a firestorm of protest from affected farmers whose land would be expropriated to erect transmission-line towers, and by many others who saw the longer route as a waste of money.

Then-Opposition leader Brian Pallister called it "the biggest boondoggle in the history of Manitoba." In 2014, he said if he were premier he would "pull the plug" on the project. This past fall, Pallister hired former British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell to conduct a major economic review of Bipole III and the Keeyask Generating Station.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that there was no hype accompanying the launch of the new transmission line in July.

"No event (to mark the line's opening) is forthcoming," a government spokesman told the Free Press Friday in an email.


Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature Reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Read full biography

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Updated on Friday, January 4, 2019 at 9:25 PM CST: Fixes typo.

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