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BC Utilities Commission decision murky on clean power

VANCOUVER- The only certainty resulting from the BC Utilities Commission’s long-awaited decision on a key BC Hydro planning document is another long wait until June 30, 2010 for more answers.

Despite approving nearly all of BC Hydro’s $633 million worth of requested expenditures, the BCUC rejected the Crown corporation’s 2008 long-term acquisition plan (LTAP) - a document that sets out BC Hydro’s balance between energy conservation and new power production over the next decade.

“In essence, they’d like us to take another run at it,” BC Hydro spokesperson Susan Danard told The Tyee. “There were some areas where the commissioner didn’t think the plan was sound.”

The rejection could mean trouble for proponents who bid for the 3,000 gigawatt-hours per year riding on BC Hydro’s 2008 Clean Power Call. Some publicly-traded companies saw huge drops on the stock market following the announcement.

But the door’s not entirely shut. The BCUC noted BC Hydro still “has the scope, with or without Commission endorsement” to enter into electricity purchase agreements (EPAs).

The long-delayed decision was originally slated for March but finally dropped late on Monday afternoon. BC Hydro has until June 2010 to produce a new LTAP.

The 235-page decision was not the ringing endorsement sought by independent power producers, who put in bids for a total of 17,000 gigawatt-hours per year under the 2008 call. That amount of new power would account for nearly a third of the 55,000 gigawatt-hours per year currently generated by BC Hydro.

For those who will be proceeding to EPAs, some caution may be in order: BC Hydro could face increased scrutiny when called before the commission to defend the merits of each EPA, the decision noted.

The decision did give the green light to BC Hydro's largest ever program aimed at conservation, as $418 million was approved for BC Hydro’s demand side management plans from fiscal 2009 through 2011. That money will support a range of energy audits, retrofits, and conservation promotion. But whether the public will buy in remains an open question.

“We always say build more, buy more, and conserve more,” said Danard. “One of the challenges is, can you bank on customer behavior?”

To hedge the bets, BC Hydro also sought and received commission approval for $140 million towards upgrading a 47-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant in Fort Nelson, $30 million towards expanding the Mica hydroelectric dam near Revelstoke, $41 million towards consultation on the proposed Site C hydroelectric dam on the Peace River, and $1.6 million towards ensuring the reliability of Port Moody’s Burrard Thermal generating station.

A growing industrial cost base in northeast B.C., fed partly by the power demands associated with oil and gas infrastructure, underlies the possible expansion of the Fort Nelson facility, Danard said. Other parts of B.C. face declining power consumption, where the slumping forest industry means near-dormant status at several pulp and paper mills.

The rejection could mean trouble for proponents who bid for the 3,000 gigawatt-hours per year riding on BC Hydro’s 2008 Clean Power Call.

Greg Amos reports for The Tyee

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