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Pathways and green space along the Hydro corridor in the Bridlewood area of Kanata.

Hydro corridor in Bridlewood area of Ottawa: millions of dollars’ worth of new power lines needed

Ottawa Citizen May 21

The provincial government is preparing a new law to make it easier to build and expand hydro corridors, with the Ottawa area a prime target.

Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli told a summit of energy companies in Toronto in early May that he’s working on legislation that’s mostly about adjusting the way Ontario’s main regulator for the industry, the Ontario Energy Board, works once the province sells off a majority share in Hydro One, its main transmission utility.

But part of the new law, according to the text of his speech, will “give cabinet enhanced powers to designate key transmission corridors to expedite their construction.”

Chiarelli’s spokesperson Jennifer Beaudry explained by email that the idea is to let the politicians decide what’s “in the public good” and remove a stage where the energy board makes its own determination about whether a transmission project is really needed. The regulator would still go over costs and decide who should pay what share of them, she said.

A key transmission corridor could be one that brings electricity to a remote First Nations reserve, one needed to power northern mines, or one that’s needed for “enhanced intertie capacity with neighbouring jurisdictions to support clean energy import,” the text of Chiarelli’s speech says.

And that means Ottawa, which is a major transfer point for electricity Ontario buys from Quebec’s hydro dams but where our existing wires are nearly maxed out.

“At present the firm import capability that could be relied on for all hours on the Quebec — Ontario interties is quite restricted due to transmission issues in the Ottawa area,” says a report prepared last fall by the Independent Electricity System Operator, the provincial agency that monitors and forecasts the flow of electricity around Ontario.

Lines that run through Ottawa carry power into Ontario both from northern Quebec and from the big Beauharnois dam near Montreal. Electricity doesn’t travel all that well, so a lot of the energy we use here comes from Quebec, especially in the summer.

A shortage of transmission capacity will be a big deal in the North, where the eventual development of Ring of Fire mines and related industries will take a lot of electricity. It could even affect Toronto, which has a lot of heavy-duty power lines around its outskirts but only a webwork of little ones serving its condo-packed downtown. But it’s here that the clock is really ticking.

Within five years, the agency says, there’ll be no capacity to move electricity from Quebec through Ottawa to the rest of the province unless we build hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of new power lines; all the juice we can suck in, we’ll be using locally. At a minimum, keeping the system functioning means replacing existing lines that run past backyards in Kanata and Orléans with heavier-duty ones, a $325-million project that would only keep the power supply in Ottawa stable, not give us any to spare.

The most ambitious scenario the IESO considered would cost more like $2 billion. It’s a list of things we’d have to do if Ontario wants to make a major deal to buy Quebec electricity in quantity. We’d have to do major work on just about all of Ottawa’s high-voltage lines, but especially on the ones that run through Orléans because they mainly carry electricity from an “intertie” with Quebec at a hydro dam in Masson-Angers to Ontario’s main power grid. It would also mean building a new eight-kilometre line through Kanata, connecting transfer stations at South March and Terry Fox.

As Ontario knows well by now, new electricity projects are rarely popular. Usually, they benefit other people more than those who live nearby — a wind farm is good for the company that runs it and for whoever leases or sells the land, and (arguably) for the province as a whole, but not for the neighbours who have to look at it.

Same thing with a hydro corridor. We need high-voltage wires but nobody has yet found a way to make them pretty. Plus the science is pretty compelling that they don’t pose a health risk, but there’s no convincing some people. There’s really no way that high-tension wires carrying Quebec power past your house in Ottawa’s suburbs toward Toronto are a selling point. Which is why the cabinet will want the authority to shove them down people’s throats.