Connecting First Nations with billion-dollar transmission line – by Shawn Bell (Wawatay News – October 3, 2012)

Northern Ontario’s First Nations Voice:

Planning for a northern transmission line that will connect remote First Nations of northwestern Ontario to the southern electricity grid took a big step forward last week, as the steering committee of Wataynikaneyap Power met with the Ontario government and released its Environmental Assessment notice.

The meeting between Wataynikaneyap and three provincial ministers marked a milestone in the estimated $1.1 billion project, as Phase 1 – upgrading the existing transmission line to Pickle Lake and running a line to the Musselwhite mine – gets closer to reality.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, there are lots of logistics and regulatory requirements, but this (transmission line) has been a priority determined by the communities that want their energy issues addressed,” said steering committee member Margaret Kenequenash.

Wataynikaneyap plans to be a 100 percent First Nations owned and operated company, with revenue from the transmission line going back to the communities that are part owners of the company. So far 13 First Nations have joined the company.

Kenequenash said the plan has Phase 1 construction starting sometime in 2014. Phase 2, which involves connecting communities through a central transmission loop from Pickle Lake, is expected to start sometime in 2015, she said.

Communities of the north have been calling for a transmission line to connect them to the southern electricity grid for years. Recent warm winters have shortened the winter road season, limiting when communities can bring diesel in by truck for their diesel generators.

There are also environmental concerns with the pollution from the diesel generators, as well as the potential for spills along the winter roads.

The current diesel power systems in communities have also limited growth, both in terms of hooking up new houses to the grids and in setting up businesses and other economic development projects.

As Frank McKay, another Wataynikaneyap steering committee member, explained, most of the communities of the far north are at capacity when it comes to power, and diesel generation continues to cost the federal government a lot of money each year.

“The cost savings to the federal government of having this transmission line, in the long run it will save the government a lot of money,” McKay said.

Funding the project is expected to be the main hurdle for getting the transmission line off the ground. The organization is currently examining its options for financing, with the provincial and federal governments expected to contribute in a meaningful way.

Ontario has identified the Pickle Lake upgrade as a key component in its future electricity system, and Wataynikaneyap is banking on the province contributing funds towards the project.

Musselwhite’ mine will also be a major customer – the mine’s operator, GoldCorp, is funding the preliminary work involved in setting up Wataynikaneyap and planning the transmission line.

McKay said the Ontario ministers that the group met with – including Natural Resources’ Michael Gravelle, Northern Development and Mines’ Rick Bartolucci and Energy’s Chris Bentley – were receptive to the plan and supportive of the project.

“They know there’s power needed in the north,” McKay said.

Kenequenash noted that hooking northern First Nations to the energy grid is not only a benefit to the First Nations. There are potential hydro electric power sites across the north, which she said become a possibility once a transmission line exists to bring power south.

There are also a number of mining projects planned for the region, which would benefit from having electricity available, she said.

Wataynikaneyap is considering extending the transmission line west to Red Lake and east to the Ring of Fire to make the power available to the mining developments in those regions.

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