High above the banks of the Skeena River a series of hand gestures is used to delicately and snugly fit one half of a transmission line tower into place.
The gestures come from one of two Valard linemen securely fastened in an open cage approximately 80 feet up in the air at the end of an extendable boom arm affixed to a vehicle down below.
They’re right up against the top of the bottom half of the tower. Those gestures direct the operator of another crane that’s lifting the top half of tower and to crews on the ground who can maneuver that top half from side to side and back and forth with the help of guide ropes.
It’s tricky work as the lineman’s hand motions one way or the other and either up or down.
At close to 30,000 pounds in weight and 80 feet in length, the top half of the tower moves mere inches at a time through the still air of a mild February winter’s day.
“It’s good there’s no wind. If it was really gusting or up there at 30km, we wouldn’t be doing this,” said Dan Sailor, a Valard employee keeping a close eye on things on the ground.
“You just don’t throw green guys at this,” adds Rob Flinta, another Valard employee.
“See that crane operator?” continues Flinta, pointing to the man whose crane is carrying the top half of the tower. “He’s probably a 30-year man.”
The lineman finally makes a quick side to side movement and the task, think of a glove fitting over a hand, is done.
He and his partner then begin to winch the top half down into the bottom half, joining the two sections of Northwest Transmission Line Tower 7-1.
“That was something,” says Dave Mathers, who is part of Hatch, the company hired by BC Hydro to oversee construction of the transmission line.
“That operator had maybe six inches left [before it was maxed out],” he says of the crane arm that reached far into the sky to lower the top half into place.
At some 160 feet high and weighing 57,000 pounds, Tower 7-1 is the tallest of the 1,100 towers being erected along the 344km route of the Northwest Transmission Line.
It’s located on the south bank area of the Skeena River, the end tower of the ones being erected along the 7km section from BC Hydro’s Skeena Substation to the river.
Tower 7-1 will have a companion tower of almost the same height just across the Skeena River as the 287kV Northwest Transmission Line parallels the existing 138kV line in crossing the river and Hwy16 just east of New Remo to run north through Kitsumkalum territory through the Nass and up Hwy37 North to end at Bob Quinn where a new BC Hydro sub station is now under construction.
Tower 7-1 and its companion tower are called monopoles in the power line industry. Monopoles have also been installed on route sections running south from the Bob Quinn sub station location but most of the Northwest Transmission Line will be of the more familiar looking lattice type.
With completion scheduled for spring 2014, the Northwest Transmission Line will do double duty in providing reliable power leading to the development of mines and transmitting power out of the region that’s been generated by hydro projects.
Red Chris, a copper property owned by Imperial Metals and located north of the line’s termination point at Bob Quinn, is expected to be the line’s first industrial customer while AltaGas is building run of river projects along the Iskut River to the west to feed power into the line.
The sparsely settled Iskut area, situated north of Bob Quinn, is to also benefit from the line; people there now depend on diesel generators for power.
But there’s a lot of work yet to come between now and then.
As of last week, about 25 per cent of the foundation work for the 1,100 towers has been finished and 80 per cent of the route right away has been cleared, reports Tim Jennings, the BC Hydro official most closely connected to the $561 million project.
“The average tower height is 27 metres [just under 88 feet], says Jennings. “The average tree height there is 23 metres so the poles will be just above those trees.”
“The people who know these things tell me that if you take them all and stand them up on end, it would add up to 78 Empire State Buildings,” he said of the combined height of the towers.
The Northwest Transmission Line is the largest project ever undertaken by a public sector body in the region.
“We’re still working to that budget, plus or minus 10 per cent,” says Jennings.
Although it has been a milder winter than normal and that has helped the budget, Jennings says there are always cost pressures on a project of this size.
The project is also one of the largest ones to be undertaken by Valard, a company which is headquartered in Edmonton and is now owned by an American energy utility giant called Qanta Services.
The company last year was ahead of schedule in building a 180km 500-kV double-circuit transmission line from the Bruce Power complex in Kincardine, Ontario to the Milton switching station just outside of Toronto.
That involved installing 720 steel lattice towers weighing approximately 26,000 tonnes.
For the Northwest Transmission Line, Valard formed a partnership with the engineering company Burns and McDonnell for the project.
With work going on at various places along the route, Valard has five construction camps between its most southern camp at Kitsumkalum just west of Terrace and at Bob Quinn on the northern end of the line containing 230 people.
The big push for Valard will start in the spring and company officials say they’ll be adding more local people to complement the already hired.
Valard also has one other contract on the go in the region and that’s building a transmission line from the Long Lake hydro project near Stewart to a 138kv line near Stewart to feed power into BC Hydro’s provincial grid.