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Renewable energy map released to criticism by enviro groups

VANCOUVER - An association of states and provinces in western North America released this week an extensive map of areas with potential for renewable energy development. The results will be used to locate new transmission lines in the electric grid that connects this half of the continent.

However, a group of environmental organizations in British Columbia that has been monitoring the process claim that although they support the stated goals and mandate of the initiative, British Columbia’s contribution is not credible.

They want the analysis redone before it is used to guide new provincial policy.

In February, The Tyee reported on British Columbia’s plans to scope out areas with potential for large-scale solar, wind or hydro projects to support transmission infrastructure planning for Western North America.

The Western Renewable Energy Zones (WREZ) initiative was launched last March by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Western Governors' Association.

On Monday, they released a joint report which, based on participant input and feedback, identifies those areas with large-scale renewable development potential.

“We set and achieved an aggressive goal of bringing together in less than one year a large number of stakeholders to identify areas that have the most promising renewable energy resources,” stated WGA chair Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. in a press release.

“Their efforts are an important first step in developing cost-attractive renewable energy resources across the West and the high voltage transmission that will ensure this electricity can be delivered to demand centers.”

But in a submission to the task group, representatives of the David Suzuki Foundation, B.C. Spaces for Nature, Forest Ethics, West Coast Environmental Law and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative criticized B.C.'s analysis of its own renewable resources that created the map of potential resource sites.

“The way that B.C. went about doing this study, they didn't do it in accord with the methodology that was set out,” said Nicholas Heap, Climate and Energy Policy Analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation.

Four of those groups are now calling on the B.C. government to redo the assessment. According to Heap, it is especially important that an improved assessment is done before submissions have to be made this fall to a B.C. Utilities Commission's inquiry. That inquiry will determine a 30-year plan for electricity transmission in the province.

Heap explained that the groups have two problems with the British Columbia submission. First, they think it may miss areas of potential power generation because the government relied on previous studies of wind and hydro-power potential which exclude areas that had been assessed as not cost effective or were not of interest to developers.

This is a concern since past assessments of cost effectiveness may have been based on distance to existing transmission lines, and the WREZ process is supposed to identify new transmission corridors.

In addition, they believe it did not fully account for all types of environmentally-sensitive areas because it did not include land use plans which identify areas that should or should not be open to commercial use.

“What you're left with is a bunch of sites [for potential electricity generation],” he said, “but you don't know if they are the highest energy sites, and you don't know if they're the lowest [environmental] impact areas.”

British Columbia was represented on the task group that participated in the mapping project by Ed Higginbottom, senior strategy advisor for the B.C. Transmission Corporation, and Monique Stevenson, formerly of Sea Breeze Power Corp.

Higginbottom is currently on vacation and could not be reached for comment and Stevenson, now at BC Hydro, did not return phone messages from The Tyee.

A representative from the B.C. Transmission Corporation agreed to look into the environmental groups' concerns, but was not able to provide a reply by press time.

Regardless of the reasons the province chose to limit the types of lands excluded for environmental reasons, Heap warns that the province's approach may have set up problems in the future.

“If you develop a low-impact system for the development of renewable energy, you can develop more renewable energy, you can do it faster, because you're going to have more public support,” he said. “You're reducing the risks to public finances, you're reducing the risks to developers.”

Even if the government agrees to reconsider the analysis, however, the schedule proposed by the environmental groups is tight.

BC Hydro and the B.C. Transmission Corporation have to file information on electricity generation potential and protected areas -- and proposed scenarios for new transmission line locations -- with the B.C. Utilities Commission by September 18.

Colleen Kimmett and Amelia Bellamy-Royds report for The Tyee.

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