About 600 km (186 miles) northeast of Calgary, in the boreal forest of Alberta, Canada, Ipiatik Lake is a challenging place to work. Working on the surface of a muskeg formation requires that construction be restricted to wintertime. With the cold winter weather, in which temperatures can fall below minus 40 C (minus 40 F), the ground freezes and provides a solid base to work on. Without the deep freeze, the muskeg becomes a soft bog. Heavy equipment or material on its surface will sink, surrendered to mother nature — probably for good.

Our job was to build a 240-kV double-circuit transmission line with one side or circuit wired for service and the second circuit left ready to accept wire for future expansion. Our ability to build in this area depended upon temperatures remaining below freezing for extended periods. This helps the frost to penetrate deep into the ground, providing a strong base for construction. The environment presented a multitude of risks for the field team to manage, such as crew exposure to cold weather and dangerous winter storms.

Addressing Safety Challenges

Portions of the project were many kilometers from main roads, and medical facilities were a significant distance from the work site. Before a single shovel went into the ground, we addressed these risks by establishing precautions to maintain a safe work environment. The team had dedicated medical personnel on the project site to provide first aid. Safety procedures included the ability to dispatch a helicopter ambulance service, assist it with landing at the work site and evacuate a seriously injured worker, if necessary.

The routing of the transmission line took it through culturally and environmentally sensitive areas. This required coordination with multiple stakeholders, including several First Nations groups and the Alberta government, to control construction activities within sensitive caribou habitat. Another challenge for the team was to meet the construction deadline in two winters. The team evaluated the typical design used in Alberta for this type of project and determined that using the same standards would likely require more time.

Not Your Typical Transmission Line

The team set out with our client, AltaLink, to design a different type of transmission line structure than they would typically have used that would help reduce construction time. This was a significant effort requiring input and buy-in from engineering, environmental, maintenance and operations personnel, among others. Burns & McDonnell and AltaLink worked closely together to challenge conventional thinking and implement a new structure design for use on this project. This effort allowed the project to be successfully built in the two-year window required, and ultimately resulted in an overall project savings of more than $60 million (CAD).

The success of the Ipiatik Lake project is due in large part to the strong relationship built between AltaLink and Burns & McDonnell, which promoted a collaborative and cooperative process for problem-solving. Honesty, recognition of good ideas, challenging conversations and constructive criticism were some of the ingredients that created a client-consultant team that was able to tackle difficult issues with relative ease.

I consider this project a benchmark for success. It reflects some of our finest work and what can be accomplished with a client that is also a strong partner. This hard work has resulted in Burns & McDonnell developing all projects in this first five-year contract on time and on budget, and AltaLink awarding us another five-year contract.

Don is vice president of Burns & McDonnell Canada and a program manager for major electrical transmission initiatives. He has nearly 25 years of engineering experience and earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Connecticut.