Hydro line could run under lake

January 20, 2011

Study looks at what may come after Bipole III

The not-yet built Bipole III will be maxed out once the next generation of dams is constructed, raising the spectre of a fourth mega-power line and reviving the idea of an underwater route.

A 200-page report on the viability of a 500-kilovolt power line under Lake Winnipeg is almost complete and could be released in about a month. It was done by a panel of internal and external engineers who started studying the idea in earnest more than 18 months ago.

Among the experts was retired geography professor John Ryan, who initially proposed the idea. He said the panel’s research suggests an underwater line is technically feasible but still needs to be tested.

“It’s not the crazy idea everyone thought it was,” said Ryan, who could not discuss details of the report until it’s public. “We did a serious study.”

The underwater route comes with several challenges, including how to get hundreds of metres of giant cable to northern Manitoba without damaging it, and the need to build a special barge to help install the cable, likely in a trench at the bottom of the lake.

With the ongoing east-versus-west hubbub over Bipole III, the underwater route is not as outlandish as it appeared when Ryan first suggested it in the Free Press three years ago.

The $2.2-billion Bipole III is still in the planning stages, but is slated to snake through western Manitoba by 2017. It’s been a contentious project because the west-side route is longer and dramatically more costly than the originally proposed route through the pristine boreal forest on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.

According to figures released after an access-to-information request, the province’s three high-voltage transmission lines, including Bipole III, will be maxed out once two proposed dams are built up north.

By 2023, the Keeyask and Conawapa dams could be up and running, sending 2,180 more megawatts down the three power lines. By then, the lines will be at 95 per cent capacity.

The next big dam—likely decades in the future—could be the Gillam Island project at the mouth of the Nelson River. That plant, plus several others, could require a fourth or even fifth power line, raising the same question that’s plagued Manitoba Hydro and the provincial government for the last several years: Where should it go?

Provincial legislation makes an east-side route nearly impossible. Water bodies, towns and parks make the west side a tight fit for another transmission line. That could help make the case for an underwater line.

Hydro officials did not want to speculate about future dams or transmission lines.

“It will be many years, no doubt well past 2030, before any further northern development takes place and there is need for new transmission,” said Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider in an email. “There are no firm plans in place at this time for any major north to south transmission, nor do we want to speculate what technology might be employed or where it might be located. There are too many unknown factors at this time.”

Manitoba Wildlands Director Gaile Whelan-Enns, who follows energy issues closely, said the location and timing of the next power line is one of the next big questions facing Hydro. She said it ought to be linked to larger questions about where Hydro hopes to export power, the need for a national, east-west power grid and even whether power lines might run alongside new all-weather roads slated for northern Manitoba. She said rural municipalities and First Nations could do with a bit more long-term clarity.

“What I would love to see is an energy plan in Manitoba,” she said. “There are very significant and important questions in all of this.”

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 20, 2011 A4

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