04 July 2009

Gros Morne international status threatened

Gros Morne national park could lose its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site if NALCOR Energy, the provincial government’s oil, gas and hydro company, succeeds with plans to string a series of high-voltage electric transmission lines through the park.

There are alternatives but NALCOR has dismissed them already as being either costly or technically difficult.
The lines are part of a transmission infeed to bring power from the as yet undeveloped Lower Churchill river to eastern Newfoundland.

The Telegram has that as the front page story on Saturday.
The Gros Morne transmission plan generated opposition from environmental and tourism groups, along with Parks Canada, which must approve the project.

In February, Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador (HNL) chairman Bruce Sparkes first raised the spectre of Gros Morne losing its spot on the United Nations list.

"It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it's been suggested that if you put this corridor down through it, it (may) lose the designation," he says.

"We believe Parks Canada is correct in opposing this."
No one from HNL or Parks Canada would comment for the Telegram.

Deputy premier and natural resources minister Kathy Dunderdale was also unavailable for comment.  While Dunderdale was consumed with the fisheries crisis this week, her office couldn’t even deliver a statement by the Telegram’s deadline, as the department had apparently intended.

In February, Bond Papers and others first raised the issue of slinging transmission lines through the park.

The Premier backed the idea:
“When park officials look at what the trade-off happens to be for the benefits we get at the end of day ... I think they will see the benefit,” he said.
One of the trade-offs would presumably be the international designation.  According to the Telegram only two sites have lost the designation.

When the park was established in the 1980s, transmission towers through its pristine natural beauty was described as “the most serious threat” to Gros Morne.

The power lines may not be needed.

A NALCOR official recently told a business group in Gander that adding more wind generation to the island system would not be a good idea until the transmission line is built.  The transmission line would allow surplus power to be exported.
[ NALCOR manager of business development Greg] Jones told The Beacon the province can only produce a limited amount of wind energy because it can cause water to spill from hydro dams if excessive amounts are produced. This roadblock will be eliminated with the introduction of a transmission link in 2016 for the Lower Churchill hydro project.
The infeed is being justified, in part, on the grounds that the island will need additional power sources by as early as 2013. 

However, the environmental assessment documents for the project project only modest growth in residential and industrial demand in the future.  That was before the AbitibiBowater paper plant in Grand falls closed and before Kruger decided to shut down one of its paper machines at Corner Brook on what appears to be a permanent basis.

Jones’ comments suggest that current and future demand on the island can be met with much smaller, less costly alternative generation sources.  Adding wind power now would add to the current surplus, if the full implication of Jones’ comment about water spilling over hydro dams is clear. 

But that also means that added wind power and small hydro developments could continue to displace the Holyrood generating plant and still meet the island’s energy needs.  Holyrood burns oil to generate electricity and has been a subject of ongoing environmental controversy.

While the plant is currently operating at a severely reduced capacity, due to low demand in the summer months, the infeed proposal would require the plant to operate its three generators year-round in order to stabilise the power transmission from Labrador.

The government’s 2007 energy plan committed to replacing Holyrood with other forms of generation.  Also in 2007, natural resources minister Kathy Dunderdale highlighted replacing Holyrood as one of the reasons for building the infeed.

In Dunderdale’s scenario selling Lower Churchill power to consumers in eastern Newfoundland  was one way the government planned to under-write the cost of the multi-billion dollar Lower Churchill project. 

No other power purchase agreements have been identified.  A memorandum of understanding with Rhode Island on a block of 200 megawatts appears to have gone no where since it was signed in 2007.

BLTN Update:   CBC is running the story as well, on Monday.  The most interesting feature of this online story are the comments from a raft of pseudonyms - most of whom apparently like the idea of slinging power lines and steel girders through a park where right now the tallest power line is on a wooden poll. 

Nature schmature.