By Charles ReidReaching north of our Skeena Substation is an engineering marvel – the Northwest Transmission Line. Close to 1,100 steel towers, averaging 27 metres in height, are being erected. Stack them all together and they’re the equivalent to 78 Empire State buildings. Combined, the towers contain 10,600 tonnes of steel – comparable to 1.5 Eiffel towers.
Building a 344-kilometre, 287-kilovolt transmission line half-way to the Yukon is not easy. As northerners well know, the terrain is some of most rugged in all of B.C. and the weather can be extreme. A few weeks ago in this newspaper, BC Hydro acknowledged the project is facing significant construction challenges that have caused the cost to rise well beyond the original planning estimate. We’ve learned from this project and have put in place better cost-containment measures to ensure future projects remain on time and on budget.
The long-term value of the line is undisputable. Already, economic benefits are flowing directly locally with the project creating 280 jobs during each of its three years of construction. We’re proud First Nation and Nisga’a Nation contractors have done the vast majority of work to date – clearing more than 300 kilometres of the right-of-way and building more than 200 kilometres of access roads. In addition, the Tahltan Nation Development Corporation prepared the site for the new Bob Quinn Substation. First Nations and Nisga’a Nation representatives were also involved in environmental and archeological work.
In preparation, more than 300 First Nations and Nisga’a Nation people participated in our skills-training “boot camps” – receiving certificate training in a range of areas, including chainsaw safety, helicopter safety, occupational first aid, and fire suppression. More than 70 per cent of participants in the boot camps are now either working or pursuing further training.
In fact, the Gitanyow have developed a permanent work camp at Meziadin that will employ many of their community members. The Gitanyow celebrated the grand opening of the facility last month. Designed for up to 200 beds, the work camp will serve a variety of big construction projects in the region in the coming years.
Whenever possible, transmission line contractors are hiring locally and using local suppliers for things such as helicopters, surveying, environmental consulting, construction camps, and laydown areas. BC Hydro hosted business networking sessions in Terrace for local sub-contractors and suppliers to maximize their opportunities to partner with the contractors. Valard – the contractor building the line – reports that half of its construction labour force lives between Terrace and Bob Quinn, with the balance coming from other parts of Canada. It’s also important to note Valard’s work is being delivered under a project agreement with IBEW Local 258.
The line also has the ability to spur future industrial development. A report by the Mining Association of B.C. estimated that the electrification of northwest B.C. has the potential to attract more than $15 billion in mining investment alone – creating up to 10,000 jobs and generating $300 million in annual tax revenues.
Recognizing the growing job opportunities, BC Hydro is supporting a Labour Market Partnership program that included a study into the gap between the job skills required and the local skills available. The program is now implementing strategies to encourage former residents to move back to take advantage of the work opportunities. For example, a one-stop web portal will act as an electronic hiring hall for all projects in the northwest, enabling users to post jobs, equipment, supplies and services needed. Recently, BC Hydro gave some four Coast Mountains School District graduates a head start through scholarships for post-secondary trades-training.
Lastly, I’d like to point out that despite the challenging conditions, construction is progressing well. About 95 per cent of the right-of-way has been cleared and 80 per cent of the access roads have been constructed. Close to 160 of the lattice towers have been assembled. The residents and businesses of the Northwest have long lobbied for this transmission line, and I want to extend my personal thanks to the region for your continued support. I look forward to celebrating with you in 2014 the completion of this unique project that will provide a backbone for regional development in Northwest B.C.
Charles Reid is President and Chief Executive Officer of BC Hydro.