Construction started up this year for a major powerline extension in British Columbia across the border from Southeast Alaska. The new line is scheduled to connect to a new hydro electric power plant on the Iskut River in two years.

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Work started in January on the 210-mile transmission line north of Terrace British Columbia to Bob Quinn Lake on Highway 37. That road runs through the remote northern part of the province.

“The initial work has involved the clearing of the right of way and building of access roads,” said Lesley Wood, with stakeholder engagement at BC Hydro. “And this work is being done under contract to various First Nations in the area and Nisga’a Nation as well. So work started on the north most 40 kilometers of the right of way and the southern most 60 kilometers and we expect the middle sections will be starting up fairly soon as well. In addition to that, now that some of the clearing work has been done, there’s some structure foundations that have been put in place quite recently and we may very well be looking towards having a couple of the structures assembled this summer or early this fall.”

Wood says the work is on schedule to have the powerline finished by the spring of 2014. It’s expected to cost over 550 million dollars. It’s being funded by the private energy company Altagas, the Canadian federal government and BC hydro customers. Wood says it’s an important project for economic development in British Columbia. “It’s going to be providing power for various potential mines that proponents are wishing to build in the area. It’s going to be an interconnection point for independent power projects like the Forrest Kerr project that’s happening on the Iskut River. And as well it is a jumping off point potentially for future transmission line projects to other areas of the province,” she said.

The Iskut River is a major tributary of the Stikine River, which flows into Southeast Alaska near Wrangell. Altagas is building the Forrest Kerr power plant using water from the Iskut River. The company plans to supply electricity from the plant through the new transmission line in 2014. Altagas hopes to bring two additional hydro plants online on tributaries of the Iskut in 2015 and 2016.

BC Hydro has received requests for power from several mining projects in the area. Mining companies are exploring the region and considering new development of some large open pit copper and gold mines. That potential development that could happen because of the new power line raise questions for conservation groups involved with the transboundary rivers. “Clearly development is coming to the Stikine on the British Columbia side but the question is, what is the pace and scope and scale and what are the downstream effects here?” wonders Chris Zimmer, who’s with the group Rivers Without Borders. “You know we could see a number of major mines come into production in the next decade or so here and the question is what are going to be the effects locally on water quality on fish and wildlife and what are going to be the effects on the Alaska side? I mean Alaska is downstream of all of this.”

The Canadian federal government sees the new powerline as a way of accessing other renewable energy resources in the region. BC Hydro plans to connect the line to the community of Iskut, but has no plans to make similar connections to the communities of Telegraph Creek or Dease Lake. The link to Altagas’s Iskut river projects brings the North American power grid closer to Southeast Alaska. Roughly 60 miles separate Forrest Kerr from the Tyee Lake hydro electric plant on the Bradfield Canal where powerlines connecting to Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg.