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Government foot-dragging threatens First Nations transmission project schedule

Fortis wants funding framework to proceed with $1.35-billion Watay Power project
Powerline worker

An Ontario utility company is urging Queen’s Park and Ottawa to come up with a cost-sharing agreement to keep a massive First Nation-led transmission line project on schedule.

Fortis Ontario president-CEO Scott Hawkes wants both levels of government to deliver a funding framework on how the $1.35-billion Wataynikaneyap (Watay) Power project will be financed to allow the first phase of construction to begin in January 2019.

Hawkes diplomatically lauded the Ontario government on its recent release of the 2017 Long-Term Energy Plan, calling it a “positive development for the project” that will advance the project through the next regulatory and permitting milestones.

But the money has not yet been delivered.

“It's now critical that the federal government and the Ontario government reach a timely agreement on the larger funding framework so the project can file its leave to construct in a timely manner with the Ontario Energy Board to ensure the project remains on schedule,” said Hawkes in an Oct. 26 news release.

Watay Power project was first identified as a priority project in the Ontario government’s 2013 energy plan and received some ink again in the latest version.

The project involves stringing 1,800 kilometres of transmission lines to connect 17 off-grid and impoverished First Nation communities in northwestern Ontario to the provincial power system for the first time.

It stands to be a life-changing event for many inhabitants who’ve never had access to a reliable source of power beyond expensive locally-produced diesel generation.

A 2015 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers pegged the cost of diesel generation for these communities at $43 million annually, and growing.

Watay is a licensed transmission company, owned by 22 First Nation communities, that’s in a 51/49 per cent partnership with Fortis. The Toronto-based utility’s subsidiary, Fortis Ontario, is the project manager.

It was designated by the province last year as the transmission company to complete the two-phase project, expected to be finished in 2023.

In August, the feds directed $60.2 million to Watay to fund the first leg with a 117-kilometre distribution line being constructed between Red Lake and Pikangikum First Nation.

That’s expected to be completed by next fall.

"We are incredibly encouraged by the Ontario government's ongoing support for the project and look forward to the day when we can tie into the provincial electricity grid and provide our communities with safe, reliable and clean energy," added Watay Power CEO Margaret Kenequanash in a statement.

"Connection to the grid will open the door for us to start building the infrastructure we so desperately need."