Over the summer, west Edmonton will see the installation of High Voltage Transmission Lines, as EPCOR’s application to expand its capacity at the Meadowlark and Poundmaker Substations was approved by the Alberta Utilities Commission in March 2020.
This decision is not without controversy — or impact— to many west Edmonton residents. I would like to clarify what the role of the AUC is and what I believe the City should have done, in order to understand how this decision came about.
First, it bears mention that I don’t think these high voltage transmission lines look nice. They are intrusive and ugly. They loom over the community and may very well have an impact on the quality of life in the neighbourhood. Unfortunately, what I think doesn’t really matter to the Alberta Utilities Commission. Their decisions are separate from the influence and jurisdiction of the municipal and provincial government.
The AUC is “an independent, quasi-judicial agency of the province of Alberta…[that] is responsible to ensure that the deliver of Alberta’s utility service takes place in a manner that is fair, responsible and in the public interest.” The nature of utilities is that they are governed at the provincial level by a highly regulated, if frustrating and thorough, process. Because utilities are essential to the stable operation of many homes and businesses across the province, appealing the construction and expansion of utilities has to meet a high test.
In this case, despite over 150 residents registering as interveners through the hearing process, the AUC found “the need for the transmission line and the associated upgrades to be clear and urgent and in the public interest” and chose not to force EPCOR to bear the additional cost of burying the transmission line underground. You can find their ruling here. To be clear, there is no formal appeal process through Edmonton City Council; this is a decision outside of our jurisdiction.
With that context, I’ll now explain what I believe the City’s role should have been. In 2010, the City of Edmonton passed a municipal development plan (MDP) called “The Way We Grow”. This bylaw identified High Voltage Transmission Lines and committed to advocating for lines to be buried underground (Bylaw 15100; Sec. 9.6).
It is my belief that our City Administration should have registered as an intervenor in the AUC hearing process, at the very least to uphold the advocacy mandate set in the Municipal Development Plan bylaw. Yet, at every point in the conversation there was exceptional resistance to intervention, including a motion from Councillor Knack that was made in 2019 and ultimately withdrawn after debate. So I was understandably surprised to read in a subsequent report, that Administration had been looking for Council direction to follow our own bylaw.
While it is unlikely that the City of Edmonton’s intervention would change the outcome of the AUC decision, I think this misses the point. The residents in west Edmonton deserve to know that their City is willing to go to bat for them when the questions of liveability and growth are at stake.
With this argument in hand, in November 2020 I made a motion on Council to have a capital profile created by the City that would outline the costs associated with burying this transmission line underground when adjacent to residential areas in Lynnwood and Elmwood. This would have involved City Council committing to fund the additional cost from the tax base, and then reapplying to the AUC for an alternate routing.
Ultimately, after a lot of discussion at Executive Committee and at Council which including several compelling presentations from affected residents, my motion to proceed with developing the capital profile was defeated narrowly by City Council in a 6-7 vote.
Some residents have raised questions as to why Councillor Knack and I did not register as intervenors since the City wasn’t taking direct action. Without the approval and direction of City Council as a whole, which we did not have, we had to register as private citizens, and would not have been granted any special status. Since neither of us live in the immediate vicinity of the HVTL project, it is highly unlikely that intervenor status would have been granted. I wrote a letter of support for the affected neighbourhoods to be included in the hearing process, which it was. I fundamentally disagree with the AUC’s ruling and I wish that we had more effective tools to change this outcome.
This is a highly complex issue and incorporates many different facets of government, most of which are not in the control of the City of Edmonton.
For this reason especially I feel the City should have intervened in this matter. For small communities to defend themselves against a difficult regulatory process is no doubt discouraging, but also overwhelmingly opaque. It’s no wonder so many people feel disillusioned with the City and the AUC.
Councillor Knack said it best when he said “if there was one issue I could have a do-over on, this would be it.” It took the better part of three years for us to untangle this issue and I would have liked there to be more definitive action for the community and for that resolution to have come much sooner than it did. With this, we now must ensure that the construction schedule is on time to ensure that there is minimal disruption to the community.