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Huge 'Green' Boondoggle?

Critics claim $300 million will be wasted on BC 'clean energy' project.

Tom Barrett 26 Apr

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor of The Tyee. You can find his previous articles here.

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Plan to electrify highway

The provincial government says a massive project to connect a stretch of northwestern B.C. to the North American power grid is a green initiative.

But if the aim of the project is really to fight climate change, an environmental group says it knows a way it could save the province hundreds of millions of dollars.

In March, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave B.C. $199.3 million to cut pollution and greenhouse gases. One of the projects earmarked for possible funding, Harper said, was a plan to extend the power grid to communities near the Alaska panhandle, currently powered by "dirty diesel."

The Highway 37 electrification project, as it's known, has been on the drawing board for years. It's still in the proposal stage, although its backers are lobbying the government vigorously and the province seems open to the project.

But calculations by the Dogwood Initiative suggest that the government could get the area off diesel for $22 million or less -- as opposed to the $326 million cost of hooking the area up to the grid.

The extra $300 million or so is only necessary if the government intends to open the area up to mining, the environmental organization claims.

'Way better alternatives'

"It's a complete scam," says Dogwood Initiative executive director Will Horter. "If the purpose of the power line is to get these people off diesel, there's way better alternatives."

"If the purpose is to pretend that you're doing something green while you're basically building a power line that opens the whole northern province up to oil and gas and mining and coal development and you can get away with that, then fine."

The approximately 650 households in the area currently powered by diesel would use less than half of one per cent of the power line's capacity, Horter said.

Highway 37 runs through the heart of what mining promoters call B.C.'s "Golden Triangle." The area is said to abound in copper and gold. There are also deposits of coal -- not the greenest fuel around, admittedly.

"A dozen mineral properties at various stages of exploration and development are located within 160 km or so of the proposed power grid extension," says a brief prepared in 2005 by the Northwest Powerline Coalition, an industry-led group supporting development of the area.

"In order to be economically viable, these projects require access to electricity at the same rates charged to large industrial users throughout the rest of the province," the document states.

Promise of jobs, investment

The coalition argues that opening the area up to mining will create 10,000 direct and indirect jobs and will spur $3 billion in private-sector investment.

All that, the coalition says, in exchange for a public-sector investment that would be less than the cost of the new Vancouver Convention Centre.

"These developments will nurture, grow and support healthy economic activity in the region and create thousands of new, long-term, sustainable, high-paying jobs in an area populated predominantly by First Nations peoples," the coalition promises. "This will enhance existing, and create new sources of revenue for the B.C. government through an increased business tax base [and] a higher and expanded personal tax base and improve the working relationship with the First Nations community as they move towards self-sufficiency and self-government."

However, says Horter, no one in government is looking at the potential social and environmental costs of such massive development.

"This is probably the largest industrial development scheme that'll happen in B.C. in my lifetime," Horter said. "And it's happening with no conversation and no public discussion -- no nothing.

"It's all happening in secret."

Mining 'can make a killing'

The only time the electrification project received any wide scale publicity, Horter said, was in March, when the prime minister came to B.C. to hand over the Canada ecoTrust money.

At the time, Harper said the money was designed to "finance projects that will advance the development of clean energy and directly reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions." These were, he said, "environmental initiatives that will make real, measurable contributions to reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions."

Besides the money for electrifying Highway 37, the ecoTrust money is aimed at promoting such things as fuel cells, geothermal energy and bio-energy. The province hasn't yet determined how much each project will receive.

In accepting Harper's cheque, Premier Gordon Campbell linked the projects to climate change, saying they will "result in real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants."

Electrification of Highway 37, he suggested, is part of B.C.'s global warming strategy.

To Horter, however, the project looks more like a handout to government supporters.

Mining companies, which donated $1.5 million to Campbell's Liberal party over the past decade, "can really make a killing if they get the government to pay all their [electricity] costs," Horter said. "Their biggest cost is power."

Jake Jacobs, a spokesman for the B.C. energy ministry, said in an e-mail that Hydro has looked at using small hydro as a replacement for diesel in various communities.

"In fact, the Energy Plan 2007 includes a policy action directing B.C. Hydro to consider alternative energy and energy efficiency when it is looking at how best to serve remote communities," Jacobs said.

He added that "the availability of transmission infrastructure will facilitate the development of renewable electricity generation in the area generally" and that "the province is committed to support the development of clean, efficient energy supplies and energy conservation projects for First Nations and remote communities."

'Micro-hydro' far cheaper

To calculate how much it would cost taxpayers to get the Highway 37 communities off dirty diesel, Dogwood Initiative volunteer Gaza Vamos, an engineer, worked out two scenarios.

Both involve building micro-hydro projects, also known as run-of-the-river power, on the area's streams.

The numbers, Vamos said, are approximate, "but they give you the picture."

Under the first scenario, based on B.C. Hydro data, all the households currently on diesel could be served at their current levels of energy consumption by micro-hydro for $22 million, said Vamos, who is also a director of the B.C. Sustainable Energy Association.

Under Vamos's second scenario, power consumption could be cut by 70 per cent and the cost of providing micro-hydro to the area would drop to about $11 million.

That includes spending $5,000 per household to give new, energy-efficient appliances to everybody in the area.

Horter acknowledged that there are some environmental downsides associated with micro-hydro, but added that these problems usually arise when larger projects are passed off as being micro in scale.

"It all kind of comes back to: Is it truly micro-hydro or is it a big project that they're trying to pretend is micro-hydro?" he said.

Given the tiny communities along Highway 37, Horter said, very small-scale alternative energy projects should be sufficient.

"There's lots of alternatives for powering them compared to massive power lines," he said.

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