Debate over AltaLink sale

By Mabell, Dave on August 14, 2014.

Dave Mabell


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It’s one of those “only in Alberta” situations.

An American billionaire is poised to buy one of the province’s vital energy facilities. But, as Lethbridge MLA Bridget Pastoor points out, nobody seems to care.

In neighbouring provinces, publicly owned BC Hydro and SaskPower operate their province-wide electrical systems and pay a hefty dividend to taxpayers every year.

In Alberta, where there’s no Crown corporation operating a public grid, private companies build power networks and pay dividends to private investors instead. Now the biggest operator, AltaLink, is being bought by one of billionaire Warren Buffett’s businesses, Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

“Are we all too busy to pay attention, or are people OK with this sale?” the longtime Lethbridge MLA asks.

AltaLink is owned by Quebec-based SNC Lavalin. Pastoor questions whether its sale to an international company – for an impressive $3.2 billion – will benefit Albertans.

She asks, “Will we continue to pay for building transmission lines when we don’t get the rewards that those dollars should create?”

That’s what Lethbridge residents are asking her, she says. In other provinces, taxpayers own the new lines their monthly bills underwrite.

This latest development, Pastoor says, follows a series of fees and price spikes that began when then premier Ralph Klein deregulated the province’s electrical system. Despite his rosy predictions, no other province followed Klein’s lead.

Calls to Pastoor’s constituency office increased, she says, after the Lethbridge Herald ran an op-ed piece on Warren Buffett’s purchase by Wildrose MLA Joe Anglin. But so far, the Progressive Conservative government has had little to say about the deal.

The Alberta New Democrats have called for federal officials to cancel the sale, however, and all three contenders for the premier’s job say they’re watching the deal closely.

Meanwhile AltaLink’s competitor, Alberta-based Atco, has warned of “serious consequences” if federal and provincial authorities allow the sale. The utility’s president, Nancy Southern, has maintained critical facilities like transmission lines should remain in the hands of Canadians.

But speaking for AltaLink, president Scott Thon says the change in ownership should have little impact on everyday Albertans.

“For Lethbridge consumers, we won’t see anything change as a result of the sale,” he says.

Across southern Alberta, the company delivers power generated by wind power and thermal coal to community-level distributors including Enmax and Fortis. New investment will make its network still stronger, Thon points out.

“Berkshire Hathaway Energy has a strong track record of owning and operating world-class utilities,” he says.

The American company’s massive investment in Alberta infrastructure will ensure AltaLink has the capacity to keep on building new transmission lines as the province’s population and economy continue to grow, Thon adds.

“Our company is pretty excited about the sale,” he says. “We’re lucky to have a steady, strong investor.”

AltaLink traces its roots to 1911, he says. It began as Calgary Power, building a hydro dam in the Rocky Mountains and stringing a transmission line from there to the city. The company’s name changed to TransAlta in the 1980s, as it grew to serve a larger area of the province. Following electrical deregulation, it split to create one company for power generation (TransAlta) and another for high-voltage distribution.

The province’s north-south transmission grid, dating from the 1970s, is currently being reinforced, Thom says. About 90 per cent of the transmission towers on AltaLink’s part of the project now in place, and contractors will soon be stringing cable along the line north and south from the Edmonton area.

For Alberta consumers, he explains, the $800-million cost will translate into an extra 80 cents on their monthly power bill.

In the Lethbridge area, AltaLink recently completed connection with the massive 300-megaWatt Blackspring Ridge wind farm near Carmangay – currently, the most powerful in Western Canada.