For Albertans, emotions can get electrically charged when the topic of overhead versus buried power lines is brought up. There’s 25 000 km of line strung across the province. Why should this be an issue when electricity is regarded as a clean form of energy and very few of us have stepped off the grid in the past 100 years?
For some, the issue stems from the transmission towers and lines blocking the view and the accompanying loss of property value. Some farmers don’t like the thought of the lines being set up on their land and interfering with their farming operations. Others think high-voltage transmission lines have a negative impact on health, and some are shocked at the number of birds that are killed annually due to collisions with the lines.
John Kristensen, biologist and vice president of Responsible Electricity Transmission for Albertans, along with his wife, moved from their home in Bretona Pond in June after the Heartland Transmission Line was built. They had lived there since the ‘70s and took a considerable financial loss on their home and five acres of surrounding property due to the new line, but felt the move was worth it as they had researched the negative effects of living near a high-voltage power line.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize the power companies very smugly say, ‘Well if you don’t like the power lines, move,’” Kristensen says. “Well, lots of people have, so maybe that’s good. The downside is, there’s a property devaluation and loss that goes along with that.”
The Kristensens’ decision was made after plenty of consultation with the transmission companies and a hearing with the Alberta Utilities Commission to offer their reasons why the high-voltage line should be buried.
“But if you could believe it, AltaLink and Epcor tried to have me dismissed as an expert witness because I had a vested interest because I was the vice president of RETA,” Kristensen says. “They actually made a big case in front of the AUC, which took several hours of arguing that I was a biased individual making a submission and therefore I could not be considered an expert.”
The reason Kristensen has been fighting with AltaLink for the past few years about not building the Heartland line above ground and was involved in creating RETA in 2009, is because he doesn’t think the electromagnetic field that surrounds high-voltage transmission lines is healthy. RETA’s website cites numerous studies that link exposure to the lines to Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases, behaviour and mental disorders, birth defects, brain cancer, breast cancer, dementia, depression and suicide, fatigue, headaches, heart problems, intestinal cancer, leukemia, lymph cancer, miscarriage, nausea, sexual dysfunction and sleep disorders, among others.
Kristensen says the negative impacts wouldn’t affect someone driving under an overhead line every day to and from work. It’s those who live next to, work next to and go to school next to the lines that may experience negative impacts.
“The electromagnetic field has two parts to it: an electric field and a magnetic field. The electric field is entirely eliminated when you bury the line and that’s through shielding by the soil,” Kristensen says. “The magnetic field is decreased tremendously because the closer you lay electricity conductors—the lines that the electricity flows through … it’s called phase cancellation; they cancel each other out.”
Kristensen says the lines are usually laid in groups of three below ground and the magnetic field running through one line is cancelled by the one next to it.
“Whereas when you hang conductors (wires) from towers, the power companies have to spread them far enough apart so that when they sway in the wind, they won’t slam into each other, nor will they hit the tower,” Kristensen explains. “By spreading those lines so far apart, now you eliminate most of the magnetic field cancellation that takes place if you lay them only a few inches apart underneath the ground. So that’s why the magnetic field is so much higher above ground than underground.”
But AltaLink’s external engagement director Scott Schreiner says the electromagnetic field exists on both underground and overhead lines, so burying the lines won’t necessarily be a safer alternative. He says the magnetic fields are not actually stopped by being buried.
“They go through ground, they go through cement, they go through everything. They aren’t stopped because they’re buried,” he explains.
Schreiner says the ground and insulation around the lines doesn’t stop the magnetic field. He says grouping them underground can reduce the width of the field, but the strength directly above these lines may be higher than even overhead lines.
“It’s important to remember that EMF is everywhere, whether it’s from the clock radio next to your bed, from the computer that you’re probably sitting in front of right now, the lights on in your office, EMF is everywhere,” Schreiner says. “The fields that are produced by power lines are very low and they dissipate very, very quickly, to the point that once you’re 150 to 200 metres away from almost every power line, the field is so small that you wouldn’t be able to specifically determine where it’s coming from.”
Kristensen doesn’t disagree that EMFs emanate from buried lines, but says they taper off fast when you move a few steps to either side. He is concerned that overhead lines still get EMF readings a couple hundred metres on either side of the line and he points out that the electric field is eliminated when buried.
“The other thing that is totally eliminated is this corona effect,” Kristensen says. He explains that positive corona ions are created around overhead power lines through the electric current and this cloud of positively charged corona ions moves with the wind or circles around the wire if there is no wind.
“Those corona ions in and of themselves aren’t necessarily harmful to you and I,” Kristensen says. “But when they attach themselves to diesel exhaust or any other aerial pollutants that are floating around in the air … they positively charge the diesel fuel molecule and now when you inhale that positively charged molecule, it sticks to the alveoli of your lungs 10 times as much as if they were not positively charged.”
In Alberta, underground lines are typically found in densely populated areas where there’s a lack of land available. In 2008, Epcor buried a line in downtown Edmonton from Castle Downs to Victoria Composite High School.
AltaLink relies on the research of Health Canada, the World Health Organization and decades worth of studies that have been done on the potential effects of magnetic fields on plants or animals and Schreiner says the conclusion is that it’s perfectly fine for people to be near high-voltage power lines.
However, a look at WHO’s website regarding static magnetic fields shows: “It is not possible to determine whether there are any long-term health consequences even from exposure in the millitesla range because, to date, there are no well-conducted epidemiological or long-term animal studies. Thus the carcinogenicity of static magnetic fields to humans is not at present classifiable (IARC, 2002).”
WHO’s website also states that few studies have been carried out regarding static electric fields and while body hair movement and discomfort from spark discharges have been noted, chronic or delayed effects have not been properly investigated.
Then there’s the issue of dead birds. Just before Christmas, scientist David McIntyre, who sits on the board of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and spent two decades as a study leader for the Smithsonian Institution leading tours to national parks and equivalent reserves all over the North American west, started receiving messages about hundreds of dead ducks that had been found beneath a new high voltage transmission line in Pincher Creek.
“So many dead ducks were in the road that when the snowplow was going through, it was just plowing the dead ducks,” McIntyre says, noting that no transmission line runs over that stretch of Highway 785 so the ducks were hitting the line west of that spot and following a trajectory into the road.
It’s an interesting fact, because usually when counts of birds that die due to collision with power lines are done, the birds counted are the ones just below the line.
“Lots of birds don’t get killed right off the bat,” Kristensen says. “They’ll hit the line, fall to the ground and they’re maimed. Now they crawl around and they will either die later or they’ll be predated on by coyotes, foxes or a bunch of aerial predators like hawks and eagles and owls and so on.”
Kristensen says that studies that count birds killed by lines low ball the number as many birds land elsewhere or are scavenged before they can be counted. A North Dakota study estimated 124 birds killed per kilometre per year, one in Holland estimated 214 birds per kilometre and the US Wildlife Service estimated that 174 million birds are killed every year by high-voltage lines in the United States—far more than are killed by hunters—but Kristensen says all of those numbers are too low.
So when McIntyre made a trip into Pincher Creek from his home about half an hour away in Crowsnest Pass a week or so later, many birds had already been scavenged.
“I was only at the site where the ducks were killed for about 10 minutes, but I saw seven different eagles at the sight at that time, and one of them was carrying off a dead duck,” McIntyre says. “We know there were at least hundreds of ducks killed and we know that there were a few other bird species as well, we don’t really know the full picture of things because weeks went by with seemingly and almost certainly a really large number of scavengers on that landscape.”
McIntyre was shocked that so many people were aware of the dead ducks and yet it wasn’t reported.
“Apparently no one reported it to AltaLink,” McIntyre says. “That’s conjecture on my part, but I’ve talked to a couple of AltaLink and one Stantec biologist and they say they didn’t know about the story until it broke I think on January 7.”
AltaLink sent experts to the site to investigate the situation.
“We had a team on site the next day and have been working to understand what may have happened in that particular circumstance,” Schreiner says. “What we’ve found during our investigation and understanding some of the weather that we saw in December is that over a few days in December there was extreme high winds, extreme low visibility in the Pincher Creek area, winds ranging up to 135 km an hour that made it obviously challenging for birds to see the lines and to be able to avoid the lines in flight.”
Schreiner says they’ve never experienced an event like this before along any of AltaLink’s 12 000 km of power lines across the province.
“However, any aerial facility—it’s not just power lines, it could be cellphone towers, it could be a skyscraper, it could be a house—any aerial facility presents an obstacle to birds,” he says.
He also points out that AltaLink was the first utility in Canada to develop and implement an avian protection plan to understand where there may be higher risk areas and to install bird diverters on the lines to make them more visible to birds.
“Obviously AltaLink goes to great lengths to talk about their record, their commitment, how they prevent bird collisions and never put lines in places where waterfowl or other species would be at risk,” McIntyre says. “What I would say seems to happen, and I don’t have a huge study sample, but here we’ve got 10 000 wintering waterfowl, roughly 5000 mallards and 5000 Canada geese and maybe a few other duck species to boot and we have 10 000 birds that this line is strung right between where they rest by night and where they go by day to feed.”
McIntyre doesn’t understand why transmission companies continue to erect transmission lines in areas where waterfowl and other bird species typically congregate, not to mention the eyesore the towers themselves are as they block the “heart and soul view of rangeland going into spectacular mountain backdrop.”
The reason for overhead lines, according to the transmission companies, is cost.
“They say it costs in the order of six times more to go underground than it does to go overhead,” McIntyre says. “I have talked to contractors and the standard answer that I get from every single contractor with whom I discuss this is that it costs approximately 30 percent more, not 600 percent.”
Regarding the Heartland line, Schreiner says it would have cost exponentially more to bury even some of the line.
“It would have increased the cost on that project approximately 500 million dollars to bury a 22 km section, Schreiner points out. “For that little section of line we’re talking seven times to 10 times the cost of an overhead system.”
Kristensen remembers things a bit differently and says in the beginning AltaLink and Epcor said the cost of burying would be four to 20 times as much, but after a lot of consideration, they calculated it would only cost 1.7 times as much to bury one third of the Heartland line through the most densely populated area.
“And that’s only based on the capital cost, in other words, the cost to build,” Kristensen says. “When you add in the much higher costs to maintain overhead lines and the much higher costs of transmission loss, that is, electricity to heat, over the life of the line, which is maybe 50 to 65 years … that’s when buried lines are cheaper than overhead lines and isn’t that what we should be looking at? Shouldn’t we be looking at the total cost of above ground and underground rather than just what it costs to build?”
In 2009, RETA commissioned a Leger Marketing poll to ask Albertans about power lines. Approximately 70 percent of the study sample felt power lines should be buried when they were around homes, school and daycares.
“And the average person who was polled, there were 900 Albertans who were polled, was willing to pay an average of $3.55 more per month on their power bill to get the lines buried,” Kristensen says. “We calculated that to bury one third of the Heartland line it would have cost the average Albertan a cup of coffee a year.”
This information was presented at the AUC hearing but Kristensen says RETA always got labelled as an anti-development group and that’s just not the case.
“All of us on the board, and we’ve got about 10 000 members now, everybody uses electricity and we don’t want to stop using electricity, it’s just we can keep using electricity and we can do it smarter and not have all these negative effects and that’s why we really push hard on burying.”