Line of Duty
2013: Alberta Electric System Operator announces the Fort McMurray project.
December 2014: Alberta PowerLine (APL) wins the bid.
2015: The APL team begins detailed planning of the route and evaluating impact on communities and the environment.
2017: The first construction season begins.
2018: The second and final winter construction season begins.
March 2019: The transmission project is energized, three months ahead of schedule.
December 2019: Indigenous communities purchase 40 percent ownership of the transmission line.
Seven years ago, government leaders in Alberta, Canada vowed to take a major step toward addressing the energy needs of the growing province. The resulting transmission line, the longest of its kind in the country, would make the grid more efficient—and transmission more affordable.
This was a huge ask. The project team would have to overcome harsh and unpredictable environmental conditions. And it would need to respectfully engage with dozens of Indigenous communities along the 508-kilometer (316-mile) high-voltage line’s route from Wabamun (just west of Edmonton) to Fort McMurray.
The Alberta Electric System Operator awarded the contract to Alberta PowerLine (APL), a public-private partnership (PPP) between the area’s utility provider, ATCO, and Quanta Services, a U.S. infrastructure firm. APL’s thorough bid laid the groundwork for success.
“We came in with a very detailed plan from day one, and the amount of planning allowed us to confidently and aggressively bid the project,” says Paul Goguen, senior vice president, project development, ATCO, Edmonton, Canada.
There was no margin for error. The team agreed to deliver the CA$1.6 billion project by 27 June 2019. Once completed, the 500-kilovolt transmission line would be the largest PPP electric utility project in Canadian history.
Putting the needs of the community front and center drove the planning phase. The team had to finalize the route and obtain the regulatory approvals, which required in-depth engagement with the public, notably the Indigenous communities near the line route—a long-standing priority for ATCO.
“The project offered a unique opportunity to further strengthen our relationships with the customers and communities we serve,” says Craig Shutt, PMP, manager, transmission projects, electricity, ATCO.
To develop a thorough engagement plan that reduced stakeholder surprises, the team had to study how the potential route might negatively impact communities and the environment. Throughout the planning phase, APL held some 3,000 meetings with landowners and Indigenous communities and engaged with members of 27 Indigenous communities. Those meetings ranged from large-scale town halls to one-on-one conversations between community members and the project team’s landowner and Indigenous relations liaisons.
“We had town halls where community members came in and expressed concerns about the line being built near their homes,” Goguen says. “We sat down with them and listened and integrated their feedback into the planning.”
Getting feedback from Indigenous communities helped the team gain vital knowledge about the land, its history and its wildlife—all of which helped the team adapt its plan. A meeting in the field with Indigenous elders led to the relocation and preservation of plants with medicinal value along the route. The team also learned from the community that river crossings typically contained archeological artifacts. So at those points during construction, workers relied on Indigenous community members to provide valuable insight about what they uncovered.
Earning buy-in from Indigenous stakeholders went far beyond a listening tour. The team awarded CA$85 million worth of contracts to Indigenous-related companies for projects such as building ice roads and clearing land for the line. In addition, the team directly hired community members to help construct the line.
PHOTO BY JASON FRANSON
Quyen Nguyen and Craig Shutt, PMP
The environmental protection plan helped limit the project’s negative impact on animal habitats, including fish and caribou. Although the team couldn’t avoid disrupting caribou altogether, it made use of existing line disturbances whenever possible, left large sections of vegetation intact along the route to give the caribou a screen from predators’ line of sight and implemented work management methods to ensure that workers avoided contact or interference with caribou.
The construction window was actually much shorter than the two years the Alberta Utility Commission granted APL to build the line. Much of the work needed to happen during the coldest months. Three-quarters of the line had to be built on bogland known as muskeg, and that work could only happen when the swampy ground was frozen to allow the heavy equipment to traverse it—without damaging muskeg or sinking into it.
The frigid temperatures in Northern Alberta that create an extreme challenge for most teams became a boon to APL. “To safely access the area and minimize the impact on the environment, we had to wait until the area was frozen for an extended period of time,” Shutt says.
APL made sure that the plan clearly defined the weather-related requirements and risks, with contractors agreeing to assume the responsibility and risks for their own work. It allowed the team to finance the project at a lower rate and “helped reduce the project’s overall execution risk,” Shutt says.
Still, the team knew it couldn’t control or fully predict the weather. “It might be really cold, so we could work through April. Or we might be able to work only through February,” says Quyen Nguyen, vice president, projects and construction, ATCO.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF ALBERTA POWERLINE
Developing a contingency plan allowed the team to adjust the timing and sequence of construction activities. Daily meetings allowed them to review how weather forecasts would impact the construction plan. During ideal weather conditions, project leaders could quickly pull in more resources and equipment to make up for inevitable delays down the line.
At times, it was simply too cold. During a two-week stretch in December 2017, the temperature fell to negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 40 degrees Celsius), and winds blew at 30 to 50 kilometers (19 to 31 miles) per hour. That made conditions too dangerous for workers. “Those two weeks set everything back,” Nguyen says. The following year, the team encountered the opposite problem: Warm weather came early and the ice began melting at the end of February.
In each case, the team drew on its contingency plan to get ahead of the schedule when weather allowed. “It was all predicated on a well-thought-out plan for engineering, procurement, materials and staffing,” Shutt says.
The schedule also benefited from a specially designed transmission tower. To erect the towers as quickly as possible, so that helicopter crews could then string the line between them, the team devised a guyed-V tower design, which had never before been used in Alberta. The guyed-V design comprises 40 to 50 percent less steel than a traditional, self-supporting tower. The lighter weight meant the tower could be fully assembled on the ground, then lifted and installed in one piece. Traditional towers require multiple lifts.
Before installing the guyed-V towers, the team launched a pilot in 2016 to construct and erect a tower and test it to 150 percent of its capacity. The team determined the design would ensure faster construction and installation without posing safety risks. As a result of the test, the APL team installed as many as 20 guyed-V towers in a single day. By contrast, it would have taken a day and a half to install just one traditional tower. Of the project’s 1,368 towers, 1,182 of them were guyed-V. “The guyed-V tower was a major factor that allowed us to complete the construction in just two winter seasons,” Shutt says.
By embracing so many pivots, the team energized the transmission line in March 2019—on budget and three months ahead of schedule.
Power to Transform
Throughout the Fort McMurray project, ATCO and Quanta team members benefited from close collaboration. Because the two organizations had partnered together on infrastructure projects in the past, they were able to draw on joint lessons learned—like how to deal with muskeg and how to string the power line using helicopters in negative 29 degree Fahrenheit (negative 34 degree Celsius) temperatures.
The project also advanced ATCO’s desire to bolster the Indigenous communities. In December 2019, seven Indigenous communities purchased a combined 40 percent ownership of the line, with the rest purchased by a commercial consortium. “From our perspective, bringing the Indigenous communities on board was the pinnacle to a very successful project,” Goguen says.
—Paul Goguen, ATCO
With ATCO operating the line for the next 35 years, Northern Alberta and its growing industries will enjoy reliable electricity for decades to come.
“With this power line, we demonstrated to the world that major electrical transmission projects are more than just steel towers,” Nguyen says. “They can be transformational in connecting customers to safe, reliable and affordable energy and in bridging socioeconomic gaps in Indigenous communities.” PM
Lights, Camera, Action!
Check out behind-the-scenes videos of this year’s PMI Project of the Year winner and finalists on PMI’s YouTube channel.