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By Rose Ragsdale
For Mining News 

New power line may carry Alaska power

Conduit could generate billions in capital investment for northwest region mines, economy and transmit electricity to Lower 48

 

Last updated 10/26/2008 at Noon



The Northwest Transmission Line along Highway 37 is once again on the front burner in British Columbia, and development of the 517-kilometer-long, or 321-mile-long, power line could provide easier access to Lower 48 markets for power generated in Alaska.

British Columbia has resumed the environmental assessment process and First Nations consultation required for the project, following an announcement by the Canadian province's Premier Gordon Campbell Sept. 26 that the power project was back on track.

The B.C. government envisions the power line carrying 287 kilovolts and extending 335 kilometers, or 208 miles, from Terrace to Meziadin Junction and northward to Bob Quinn Lake. It would provide access to the electricity grid, while supporting the economic diversification of the area. Currently, the electrical power grid along Highway 37 ends at Meziadin Junction to the north and Stewart to the west.

"The electrification of Highway 37 is an important part of the ongoing economic diversification of rural British Columbia," Campbell said in his annual Union of B.C. Municipalities address.

"It builds on the success we're already seeing in the Northwest, including the new container port in Prince Rupert, the resurgence of the mining industry and the potential new Alcan smelter. We're making the investments needed now to continue that growth and help communities seize opportunities to diversify and create jobs," the premier said.

The environmental assessment is the first stage of the project.

"The communities in the North have a vision to further open their region to economic opportunities on a global scale, and today I want them to know that we share their vision and we are going to pursue the Northwest Transmission Line," said Campbell.

He described the move as the first step towards building a power line that the mining industry has long maintained is vital to successful development of the northwestern quarter of the province.

Considerable promise in power line

The government action coincided with a new study, "MABC Report on the Electrification of the Highway 37 Corridor," released Sept. 26 by the Mining Association of British Columbia, which cited 10 potential mining projects in the area that have the potential to attract $15 billion in new capital investments and to create nearly 10,700 jobs, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing reliance on dirty diesel-generated electric power for industry and communities in the region. It also could generate $300 million in annual tax revenues for government, according to the report.

Demand for power in Northwest British Columbia is driven largely by the mining sector, independent power projects and regional municipality growth, with additional opportunities to revitalize the tourism sector.

"We have the potential to create more than 10,000 jobs in a region where unemployment is high," said Janine North, CEO of the Northern Development Initiative Trust. "Electricity can spur economic development through mining, tourism, clean power, transportation and supply industries in the northwest."

B.C. gross mining revenue has nearly doubled during the past seven years, from C$3.6 billion to nearly C$7 billion, and 10 new mines have opened in that time. Investment in mineral exploration soared to a record high of nearly C$416 million in 2007, up 1,300 percent from 2001.

But little of this development has occurred in the mountainous, but scenic, northwestern corner of the province.

Public-private cooperation essential

Pierre Gratton, the mining association's president and CEO, said a new power line has the potential to spur economic development in mining, tourism and clean power projects.

"The findings of the report provide a strong case for First Nations, the provincial government, industry and communities to work together to make the power line a reality," he said.

Such multi-party cooperation will be needed for the project, which is estimated to cost about C$400 million, Campbell said.

The British Columbia government is seeking a partnership with members of the private sector to fund the project.

Campbell, meanwhile, vowed to invest about C$10 million to immediately restart the environmental assessment process for the power line. The environmental assessment must be completed before construction can begin.

The Tahltan Nation and Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs have long expressed support for the power line and the joint-venture opportunities it could generate for the First Nations.

"However, first there must be a process that considers all potential social, cultural and environmental impacts," said Bill Adsit, president of the Tahltan Nation Development Corp.

The mining sector envisions construction of a 517-kilometer, or 321-mile, line with an estimated cost of about $600 million. It would generate more than 2,000 megawatts of electricity annually, and also could be fed power from other sources in the northwest, including alternative energy projects in British Columbia, Alaska and the Yukon Territory.

"There is significant potential for power generation in the region, from hydro and wind projects to geothermal," said Gratton. "The power line could reduce greenhouse gas emissions as communities are transitioned away from diesel generators."

The study points out that development of new mines in the region would be dependent on a number of factors, including completion of feasibility studies, continued strength of commodity prices and availability of affordable electric power.

Potential power sources proliferate

In 2007, BC Hydro commissioned an assessment of small hydro resource potential in the province. This report, produced by Kerr Wood Liedal, was released in October 2007. Based on this run-of-the-river hydroelectric resource assessment, the mining association estimated that 12 percent of the province's economically available small hydro resource exists in northwestern British Columbia.

Separate discussions with developers active in the area indicate that 700 megawatts of small hydro are currently being investigated.

Northwestern British Columbia also has a substantial wind resource. While many of these resources are atop difficult and often glacier-clad terrain on the coast, several projects further inland, including the area of Level Mountain northwest of Dease Lake, with up to 1,500 megawatts of wind power potential are being actively investigated.

The mining association also noted additional potential for geothermal power.

Alaska could make connection

Various studies, such as the Alaska-Canada Electrical Intertie Study commissioned by the Alaska Energy Authority have considered the viability of a transmission connection that links Alaska and/or Yukon.

Though the mining association declined to comment on the potential of such development, it noted that a transmission line along Highway 37 would facilitate easier connection to Alaska and the Yukon, the southeast region of which has prospective independent power provider developments.

The study also said that independent power developers in southeast Alaska have noted two key potential benefits for British Columbia, should a connection between Alaska and BC ever be constructed: Back-up supply during the winter months, when B.C. run-of-river generation is low and the potential to profit from supply of additional energy to the Lower 48.

Alaska Power & Telephone, for example, recently began the permitting process for a 75-megawatt hydroelectric project in the Soule River about 10 miles southeast of Hyder. Designed to be a peaking facility, it would generate up to 270 GWh per year, and could provide electricity West Coast energy markets transmitted via British Columbia's power grid. AP&T is a utility that serves eastern Alaska communities throughout Southeast and the Interior with electricity and telecommunication services.

This full study is available online at http://www.highway37.com.

 

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