Five questions with RETA on the Heartland Transmission Project

The Heartland Transmission Project has been a fairly controversial story in the news here in Alberta recently. The project, which involves the construction of a double circuit 500kV power transmission line, is being led by AltaLink and EPCOR under the Electric Statutes Amendment Act (2009). I haven’t seen too much controversy about whether or not the infrastructure is needed (though you should read Dave’s post), but there has been lots related to how we go about acquiring it. Leading the charge is RETA, Responsible Electricity Transmission for Albertans. They recently launched a great video on the issue:

I thought the video was very well done, even if we’ve seen the format elsewhere in the past. I decided to ask RETA’s President, Bruce Johnson, a few questions.

Why did you decide to get involved with RETA?

I got involved about 2 years ago when I first heard about the proposed Heartland line and its 4 potential routes (one of which I live on). I quickly understood, though, that the issue was much bigger than just pushing them into someone else’s back yard. We needed to push for a policy that says whenever high voltage power lines are run by schools, daycares, houses etc., they need to be buried.

Why should people care about the Heartland Transmission Project?

The impacts these lines have can be broadly categorized as health (numerous diseases strongly correlated with power lines), safety (these towers can come down in wind and ice storms and they’re proposing to build them on top of high pressure acetylene lines, environmental (275 million birds are killed each year by flying into power lines), property values (homes near the lines can drop in value by as much as 40%) and aesthetics (the towers are 20 storeys tall and nearly as wide as a football field). And guess what, these lines aren’t even needed and, just to add insult to injury, you get to pay for them anyway on your electricity bill.

Where did the idea for the video come from?

We knew we needed to do something to wake people up about this, and, at first, we thought we’d create something dramatic and shocking. But on reflection we thought that something humorous but ironic might get more people talking. We had seen a number of spoofs on pharmaceutical ads on SNL and the like and that format became the basis for the script.

What has the response been like? Any other videos in the works?

We’ve had extremely positive responses from just about everyone. A few people think its in poor taste (but at least they’re talking about it) and a few others believe there are no health effects despite the huge body of evidence to the contrary. Right now no immediate plans for another video.

How can people get involved in this issue?

The best thing people can do is to email the premier at and tell him to stop the overbuild and to put lines that are necessary underground when they impact people directly. That, and join RETA on our website. It’s free. The Heartland Line proposal will go before the Alberta Utilities Commission sometime in the next 3 to 6 months and we need to have convinced the government to change it’s position by then.

To learn more, visit the Heartland Transmission Project and RETA websites. If you’d like to write a letter in support of RETA’s position, there are templates and instructions here.

The power cable is holding us back

power I spent some time over the weekend chatting with my friend Eric Warnke, who owns and operates the Third on Whyte Internet cafe here in Edmonton. We talked about a bunch of things, but mostly about wireless mesh networks. I’ve been writing about “wireless everywhere” for over five years now (since Imagine Cup 2003 to be exact), and Eric is one of those guys who is actually making it happen.

Eric has been experimenting with both the Meraki and Open Mesh technologies recently. There are others available as well, and we briefly brainstormed about creating our own little devices. The technology for extending 802.11g wireless is actually surprisingly simple and mature. And on the horizon of course, is WiMax and a host of other emerging technologies.

The problem with all of them, is power.

Even if the hardware becomes extremely energy efficient, each part still requires at least a little bit of power. The obvious solution for a mesh network with nodes located outdoors is to use solar panels, except that Edmonton’s climate is very unfriendly to such an idea (and don’t forget that solar panels are still relatively inefficient). That leaves us with either batteries or a power cable.

The main problem with batteries at the moment is that they need to be quite large if you want them to last for any reasonable about of time. Think of a laptop battery or the battery for an electric drill – each is about four times the size of the wireless components, and probably ten times the weight. Then there’s the problem of replacing the batteries when they die, or changing them when they need recharging.

So we’re stuck with the power cable. Despite all the technological progress we’ve made over the last 100 years, we’re still tethered by the power cable.

The first two chapters of Nicholas Carr’s book The Big Switch provide an extremely engaging history of Henry Burden, Thomas Edison, Samuel Insull, and the other individuals who were instrumental in making electricity the utility it is today. I like this part in particular:

Unlike lesser inventors, Edison didn’t just create individual products; he created entire systems. He first imagined the whole, then he built the necessary pieces, making sure they all fit together seamlessly.

Of course, Edison’s DC system eventually lost out to the superior AC. Still, I can’t help but think that we desperately need a modern day Edison. Just as Edison re-imagined urban gaslight systems, we need someone to re-imagine the modern electrical system.

Is wireless energy transfer the answer? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s better to start with a question – how can we eliminate the need for contact? Or at least make that contact less restrictive? For instance, instead of connecting a wireless node to a cable inside a lamppost, why can’t I just stick the node on the lamppost itself? That would be a good first step.

We need “power everywhere” before we’ll ever get to “wireless everywhere”. Unfortunately, batteries, solar panels, and other technologies aren’t getting us any closer to that reality at the moment. Surely there must be something else then?

One hour is just 0.01% of a year

earth hour From Wikipedia:

Earth Hour is an international event that asks households and businesses to turn off their lights and non-essential electrical appliances for one hour on the evening of 29 March at 8 pm local time until 9 pm to promote electricity conservation and thus lower carbon emissions.

I’ve written about this already, and I don’t think there’s much else to be said. If you’re participating in Earth Hour, that’s great, I’m glad you have an interest in making the world a better place to live.

But next time you feel the need to be green, pick an activity that will actually make a difference. Replace your lights with energy efficient ones. Turn the thermostat down in the winter. Buy a fuel efficient car, or better yet, switch to transit. Reduce, reuse, and recycle.

You don’t lose weight by going on a diet for an hour, so don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll make the Earth more green by turning the lights out for an hour.