CALGARY - The roar of the chainsaw could soon join the calls of the wild in Jasper National Park as Atco Ltd. looks to string power across the town within the UNESCO World Heritage preserve.
The Calgary-based power company maintains that a transmission line is the cheapest option for replacing the aging generators that currently power the off-grid town of Jasper. But those opposed to the plan say it will obscure the scenic vistas and threaten wildlife, so more alternatives should be explored.
It's the latest thread in the ongoing tension between the need to meet growing energy demands and local activists' concerns about the impact of development ranging from pipelines to wind power.
"Jasper's not an average small town. It's the centre of a world-famous national park, and it's an important world tourist destination. So, to have these poles going in is really going to look pretty awful," said Jill Seaton of the Jasper Environmental Association.
"We're going to end up with 483 power poles stretching 47 kilometres across the park. They're not going to be able to hide all of them. There's some areas where they're going to be blatantly obvious."
The utility company conducted "extensive" stakeholder consultations before deciding the power line was the right choice, according to Guillaume Vachon, Atco's director of engineering and project management.
"There was a lot of work to assess if this solution was even feasible," he said.
The plan calls for replacing the roughly 14 megawatts of natural gas and diesel-powered generators that currently operate north of the town with the power line stretching east out of the park to the Alberta grid.
Jasper mayor Richard Ireland says the town hasn't taken a hard position either way on the project, but that his main concern is reliability of power. Parks Canada says it is reviewing the impact assessment filed this summer and so is not yet ready to comment on the proposal.
The Alberta Utilities Commission will hold a hearing on the project, which starts Dec. 12.
Atco studied alternatives, and found that over a 40-year span, replacing and maintaining the current system in the town area would cost more than $140 million, compared with about $79 million for the power line and plant decommissioning, plus another $28.5 million for Altalink to attach the line to the grid, Vachon said.
He added that options on renewables like wind and solar would mean more land disturbance in the park, while the power line plan reduces fossil fuel burning within Jasper.
"You would need more land for sure, to disturb new land to put these renewable infrastructures."
Vachon said the company has taken measures to minimize the impact of the project, including doing much of the work in winter to lower disturbances on wildlife and tourism, while the route itself runs along already disturbed land by following Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain route pipeline and roadways.
Atco has also kept the planned buffer around the line to 10 metres, smaller than the typical 18-metre path, which it said will limit the amount of vegetation that needs to be cleared to about 30 hectares.
But even as Atco works to lessen the project's impact, some still question whether a power line is the right solution.
"Are we seriously going to, in this day and age, run a massive transmission line to supply a tiny load?" said Peter Bubik, who is familiar with the complex world of private utilities though his work as principal at energy storage firm Turning Point Generation.
Bubik — noting his own company would have nothing to gain from the process — said the regulator should open the replacement process to a competitive bid, as opposed to the single proposal from Atco that the Alberta Electric System Operator has considered.
"Maybe this is an opportunity for Jasper to shine in the world's eyes," said Bubik.
"I am confident that someone would be able to find a more green, environmentally friendly solution than what Atco is proposing here."