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Green Power Experts Give B.C. Low Marks

BC Hydro's new energy strategy is hardly the clean cutting edge, say critics.

Scott Deveau 5 Jul 2004TheTyee.ca
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B.C. Hydro updated its long-term energy plan in April, and the future looks a lot like the past. Although the Integrated Energy Plan for the next two decades explores the risks and benefits of sustainable resources like wind, micro-hydro, cogeneration, and solar power, it also opens the door to coal-fire generation plants and the development of the massive Site C hydroelectric dam.

Throw in the prospect of more oil and gas plants and the B.C. Hydro IEP reads like a yin-yang of energy potential in the province. For Hydro's critics, it's more evidence that the utility has difficulty innovating and that the provincial government (which is also pushing offshore drilling) is interested mainly in energy sources that will help to swell its depleted coffers.

Most initial attention focused on the Site C mega-project --the subject of provincial debate for 30 years. The B.C. Progress Board, an advisory group formed by the premier in 2001, vigorously supported the $2.1 billion project, sending ripples of apprehension through conservationists across the province.

But little has become of it. Steve Thorlakson, mayor of nearby Fort St. John, said his thriving community would have its infrastructure stressed by the estimated 3,000 construction jobs. "Although our official position is in support of [Site C], we don't expect it to happen." Most environmental organizations haven't even taken an active stance against the refloated proposal.

Energy demands to rise by over a third

Beyond Site C, though, there are equally serious issues that cut to the core of the province's energy future.

B.C. Hydro estimates the province's energy demands will increase by over a third by 2023. The IEP allows for independent power producers to compete to plug into the provincial grid, regardless of the form they choose, so long as they meet the emission guidelines set out by the Ministry of Water, Land, and Air Protection. The only other restriction is the provincial government's request that B.C. Hydro meet the province's voluntary goal to have 50 per cent of the new energy supply fit the province's definition of "clean."

"Any one form of energy in the province -- be it tidal, wind, or coal -- has the potential to meet the province's energy demands," said Mark Jaccard, a resource and environmental economist and Simon Fraser professor. "It comes down to cost."

Jaccard co-authored a 2003 analysis of B.C. Hydro's willingness to voluntarily adopt more environmentally friendly options while participating in the Canadian government's program to reduce greenhouse emissions in the late '90s. The program's goals were similar to those set out by the province for BC Hydro's current expansion.

Hydro 'ignored' clean options

Jaccard and his co-author Rose Murphy compared the emissions and costs of BC Hydro's planned natural-gas plant on Vancouver Island, and an underwater pipeline from the mainland to feed it, against a low-emission alternative plan. That plan combined small- and medium-size hydro dams, burning forest industry wood waste (or other forms of biomass), and cogeneration, which exploits residual energy from other industrial activity. The study found that residential electricity rates would rise by less than one per cent under their low-emission plan, while greenhouse emissions would be 10 times lower than those created by the natural gas plant. In the fall of 2003, after the study was published, the B.C. Utilities Commission rejected the project because BC Hydro failed to show it was "the most cost effective means to reliably meet Vancouver Island power needs."

Murphy and Jaccard concluded that BC Hydro's participation in the voluntary federal program "had little impact on its willingness to incur small financial costs in order to reduce these emissions. Moreover, there is no evidence that BC Hydro even calculated the size of the financial sacrifice implied by the environmental objective."

Jaccard said the provincial government should have set a firm 75-per-cent clean energy guideline for BC Hydro to follow. He suspects they didn't because they were too nervous about the economic implications. Jaccard believes the IEP should aim for 50 per cent cogeneration, 25 per cent micro-hydro, and 25 per cent biomass, in order to harness the full potential of energy in the province.

Tapping into existing heat

Jaccard estimates that by retrofitting industrial, commercial, and institutional heat and water boilers with a turbine to produce electricity, we can harness 80 per cent (up from 35 per cent) of the energy potential of the fuels being burned, and help meet our electricity demands at the same time.

Guy Dauncey, president of the newly formed B.C. Sustainable Energy Association, says BC Hydro has a systemic resistance to alternative, clean forms of energy. He added that although less environmentally friendly methods may end up producing cheaper energy (savings Jaccard argues are nominal), they create huge environmental costs -- climate change, flooding of prime agricultural land, and damage to surrounding ecosystems.

B.C. Hydro spokesperson Elisha Moreno said BC Hydro has not considered alternative forms of energy more seriously because they fail to meet BC Hydro's commitment to find reliable energy sources.

Hydro's critics question the company's understanding of what reliable means. BC Hydro assigned a zero dependable capacity to wind energy because there is no guarantee of consistent production, despite successes in Europe, the U.S. and even Alberta, which now leads Canada in wind energy supply.

In contrast, B.C. is considering coal-fire generation plants. Coal generates the most carbon dioxide per electrical unit produced, according to the David Suzuki Foundation, and the mercury, particulate matter, and acid rain it produces are of grave concern.

In 2002, the Ministry of Energy and Mines brought coal-fire plants back into the fold to increase the options available to the province, said Shawn Robins, the ministry's director of communications -- despite the example of jurisdictions like Ontario, which has promised to phase out coal-fire burners by 2007. Coal, according the B.C. ministry, is the province's most valuable mineral, and Robins said only clean-coal options -- which meet the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection's emission guidelines -- will be explored.

Most environmentalists still regard this as a step back. "We've gotten so used to what we've been doing in the past that we haven't kept up with the times," said Jose Etcheverry, climate change analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation. "The government hasn't recognized the potential for alternative energy sources in the provinces."

Save a dime, make a dollar

As well as developing a cleaner energy supply, Etcheverry said, we must work toward more aggressive energy conservation. Controlling the demand is the cheapest way to address increasing energy requirements.

Although he commends BC Hydro for its Power Smart program, Etcheverry said it merely touches on what needs to be done. He said we should retrofit existing buildings and raise provincial construction standards to reflect the level of efficiency exemplary architecture in the province.

Etcheverry points to the building that houses Capers and the Suzuki foundation on Vancouver's West Fourth Avenue. Built by Salt Lick Projects Ltd., it harnesses geothermal energy by pumping a fluid 300 feet underground, keeping the building warm in winter and cool in summer. In the winter, the heat produced behind the fridges in Capers is harnessed. Even the water for the condos above the commercial space is warmed with residual heat. Despite the initial outlay, Etcheverry said, buildings like this can recover their costs within five years.

David Boyd, environmental lawyer and research associate for the POLIS project on ecological governance, said the Power Smart program has worked well by providing incentives for people to buy energy efficient appliances and encouraging their use in the home. If that works for fridges, Boyd asked, "why don't we have a mandate to do the same for other things?"

Power that can be taxed

Boyd, the former executive director of Sierra Legal Defense Fund, said provincial government is looking towards "resources that they can make a dime off of" like coal, oil, gas, and hydro. He emphasized the virtues of wind power, because the price is declining and it perfectly complements the existing hydro system. When the wind turbines are not running, B.C. Hydro can draw on stored energy reserves from hydro dams.

In fact, a number of firms are planning wind projects for B.C. (see tomorrow's story in The Tyee).

Jaccard, however, believes B.C.'s wind potential may be overstated. Even in the places thought to have the highest wind energy potential, such as the Queen Charlotte Islands, Jaccard estimates that turbines would only be able to run 20 per cent of the time. Places like Alberta, Texas and Germany are able to produce cheaper electricity because of more consistent weather patterns, Jaccard said.

Both Boyd and Jaccard suggest that we start harnessing the biomass potential in the province, because it is already being burned by the forestry industry in beehive burners at pulp and paper mills to dispose of waste without harnessing the energy.

"It's more than a little ironic that B.C., which is thought to be an environmental powerhouse, has been so far behind in sustainable energy," Boyd said.

Scott Deveau, a Victoria based journalist, writes regularly for The Tyee. Tomorrow, Kathleen Haley looks at B.C.'s resistance to wind power.  [Tyee]

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