Does BC Need the Electricity?

By Roy L Hales

Screen shot 2014-03-18 at 3.43.47 PMBritish Columbian politicians held out promises for the development of renewables, when the Meikle wind project was announced two months ago. The Minister of Energy and Mines, Bill Bennet, said, “Independent power projects continue to play an important role in powering our province. Our decision to proceed with Site C provides a firm energy source that will support the integration of more wind energy projects in the future.” To which Mike Bernier, the MLA for Peace River South, chirped in, “the energy sector is providing employment and economic opportunities.” One of the headlines in the March 2015 North American Windpower states, “BC Wind Industry Seeks Clear Signal.” The same statement could be asked by the geothermal, solar, and river diversion projects – but does BC need the electricity?

Does BC Need the Electricity?

“BC Hydro has made nearly $40 billion dollars in contractual obligations, to private power companies, for energy that is intermittent, that is undependable and we are selling at a loss. The private sector is bringing nothing to the table, it is bleeding BC Hydro dry,” said Gwen Barlee, of the Wilderness Committee.

Gwen Barlee, Policy Director, Wilderness Committee
Gwen Barlee, Policy Director, Wilderness Committee

“During spring frechette, when we get a lot of electricity from river diversion projects in the Pacific Northwest, electricity actually goes into negative pricing because there is so much electricity flowing into the market it destabilizes the grid,” said Barlee.

She added, “The electricity produced by river diversion projects was never meant for British Columbia. It was meant to be sold to California. However California won’t pay a premium, so BC Hydro, which was forced to issue these high priced contracts, is forced to dump this electricity, at a loss, into the open market.”

The Wilderness Committee is not opposed to renewable energy.

“But there is a right way and a wrong way to do it and we’ve done it the wrong way in British Columbia,” said Barlee. “We have nearly destroyed a crown corporation, BC Hydro, that was the envy of North America. We actually had experts come up from California who said, ‘what are you trying to fix? There is nothing broken here!’”

The Liberal Government

The province’s flirtation with privatization models began after the Liberal government came to power in 2001.

“In 2002, the BC government introduced a new policy which prohibited BC Hydro from developing new sources of electricity, obviously with the exception of site C. That was meant to stimulate the private sector. It was a very poorly thought out gamble that the government made with an electricity system they did not value that was owned by the people of British Columbia,” said Barlee.

“It is really damaging “BC Hydro, which is our best tool against climate change,” she said. “We were the envy of North America, because BC Hydro can produce low carbon, reliable, electricity year round and the dividends go back into public coffers for schools, libraries and hospitals. That’s not to say that the big dams didn’t have a big impact, which they did, but they were publicly owned and the energy they produced was publicly owned also.”

Poor Compliance & Oversight

Barlee says there is very poor compliance and poor oversight over small private projects. Around 95% of the river flow goes into pen stocks, before it is diverted into turbines.

Photo Credit: morning fog on the Quibble Creek greenway by Waferboard via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)
Photo Credit: Morning fog on the Quibble Creek Greenway by Waferboard via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

“In 2010, in the South coast region, there were 749 instances of non-compliance at 16 river diversion plants and the list just goes on, and on, and on,” she said. “River diversion projects were never meant to be in fish habitat, but something like 97% of the projects are in fish habitat. They even have projects being put on very fish rich rivers, like the Kokish on Vancouver Island, that has five species of wild salmon, two runs of steelhead.”

Barlee has similar concerns about wind energy, which produces intermittent electricity that is not needed.

BC currently obtains its electrical capacity from:

  • Large Hydro projects – 12.1 GW
  • River Diversion projects – 1 GW
  • Wind projects – 0.5 GW
  • Solar Energy – virtually untapped
  • BC has not developed any of its’ geothermal potential, though this sector is both baseline and, according to the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association, could be developed for half the price of the Site C Dam.

Barlee stressed the fact there are alternate routes to pursue. If the province needed electricity, it is entitled to an amount equal to what the Site C Dam would produce through the Columbia River treaty.

Top Photo Credit: Surveying project site in 2005. The First Nation Regeneration Fund’s first deal was with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in Atlin, BC. Xeitl is a Tlingit-owned power company that recently built a run-of-river, two-megawatt hydro power project on Pine Creek about five kilometres from Atlin. from Ecotrust Canada via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

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