Three Decades and Counting: How B.C. Has Failed to Investigate Alternatives to Site C Dam

 "Geothermal borehole house" by Lydur Skulason

Thirty-one years ago, when the Site C dam in B.C.’s Peace Valley was rejected for the first time, BC Hydro was told to investigate alternatives sources of energy, specifically geothermal energy, by the B.C. Utilities Commission.

But the Crown corporation has utterly failed to do so, according to the report of the joint review panel on the Site C project, released last month.

Ken Boon, a Peace Valley farmer whose land would be flooded by the dam, pointed this out to the panel, noting that somehow “we’re back here now 30 years later and still talking about the dam.”

The panel doesn’t mince words on the province’s failure to investigate alternatives.  

The low level of effort is surprising, especially if it results in a plan that involves large and possibly avoidable environmental and social costs,” it writes.

The $7.9-billion dam would flood 107 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries, threatening endangered wildlife and putting farmland under water.  

Why haven’t alternatives been researched? The panel points the finger at the government’s lack of funding for geological exploration, while outlining a culture of complacency fuelled by plentiful, low-cost electricity.

But times have changed, the panel says, and failure to ramp up exploration of alternative renewable sources a decade ago is hurting the province now: “The panel concludes that a failure to pursue research over the last 30 years into B.C.’s geothermal resources has left BC Hydro without information about a resource that BC Hydro thinks may offer up to 700 megawatts of firm, economic power with low environmental costs.”

With the largest public expenditure of the next 20 years on the table and a lack of clear demand for the Site C project, a serious look at the alternatives is in order.

Someday, a growing B.C. population will need more energy. “The question is when,” the panel writes. “A second question is what alternatives may be available when that day comes.”

Geothermal offers alternative reliable source of power

Even with next to no research, BC Hydro has estimated geothermal energy could replace two-thirds of Site C’s power.

Canada is currently the only major country located along the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire not producing geothermal energy. A Geological Survey of Canada report recently noted that northeast B.C. has the “highest potential for immediate development of geothermal energy” anywhere in the country.

The advantage of geothermal power over other types of renewable energy is that it’s considered a “firm” source of base load power, comparable to a hydro dam. The United States has about 3,400 MW of installed geothermal capacity.

The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, but the earth is providing heat at a constant rate,” explains Grant Van Hal, a senior policy advisor for the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA).

During the Site C hearings, the association argued geothermal energy offers more jobs spread through B.C. and First Nations, less transmission upgrade costs, fewer environmental impacts and the planning flexibility to follow the actual demand growth in the provincial system.

Despite this potential, the panel noted that BC Hydro reported its current investment in geothermal research as under $100,000 a year.

We don’t really have funding to do R&D… In fact we’re expected not to do that,” BC Hydro said at the hearings.

However, the Clean Energy Act states it is a provincial objective “to use and foster the development in British Columbia of innovative technologies that support energy conservation and efficiency and the use of clean or renewable resources.”

The panel doesn’t overlook this contradiction and raises several issues with it — chiefly that “if BC Hydro is to continually scan the resource and technology horizon for future supply and conservation possibilities, it must have a budget and a mandate to do so. Without these, long-term planning is seriously uninformed.”

In an effort to prevent future decision-makers from also being “seriously uninformed,” the panel re-iterates what was said in 1983:

The Panel recommends, regardless of the decision taken on Site C, that BC Hydro establish a research and development budget for the resource and engineering characterization of geographically diverse renewable resources.

Next, in one of the panel’s more pointed remarks, the report reads: “If the senior governments were doing their job, there would be no need for this recommendation.”

Building new supply bit by bit reduces costs

Despite the lack of detailed information for B.C., based on costs in other jurisdiction, the panel is able to say that geothermal power is available at a similar cost to Site C — and is more flexible.

These sources, being individually smaller than Site C, would allow supply to better follow demand, obviating most of the early-year losses of Site C,” the report says.

That’s a point re-iterated by Paul Kariya, the executive director of trade association Clean Energy BC.

Times have changed. We’ve been through an era of building big dams,” he told DeSmog Canada. “When you build a dam, you get this one massive lump of power and that’s not the way that energy is planned for anymore.”

Peace Valley

This part of the Peace Valley would be flooded if the Site C dam is built. Credit: Graham Osborne.

While much has changed, some things haven’t.

One of the things that hasn’t changed is governments of all stripes like mega projects,” Kariya says. “Site C is potentially the last mega hydro dam project in B.C. They’ll want it there as a potential.”

Matt Horne of the Pembina Institute, a sustainable energy think tank, says predicting future power demand is an uncertain game.

One of the uncomfortable parts of Site C, is that you’re saying, ‘This is where demand is going to be at in 15 years,’ whereas other options … are much more scalable and can be matched to demand over time,” he says.

That way, if we end up in a scenario where demand doesn’t increase as fast as BC Hydro is predicting, we don’t have to overbuild, whereas with Site C it’s one big block.”

A study commissioned by the Treaty 8 First Nations, “Need for, Purpose of and Alternatives to the Site C Hydroelectric Project,” found Site C is not a cost-effective solution to meeting BC Hydro’s forecast needs for additional energy and capacity. Study author Philip Raphals of the Helios Centre found that when compared to alternative portfolios built as needed to meet demand, the dam comes out as the most expensive of alternatives.

But what about natural gas plans?

Some of the bigger uncertainties in terms of electricity demand are around the scale of resource development, particularly the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry. That’s because each large LNG terminal, if run entirely by electricity, would require an entire Site C dam to power it.

However, the panel found large LNG plants are likely to be powered by natural gas directly (because they’ve been given an exemption from the Clean Energy Act) and, even if they did use electricity, the power would be required before Site C became operational.

The panel seemed unimpressed by B.C.’s double-standard on the topic of burning natural gas for electricity (much more on that coming later in this series).

LNG developers have been promised a free hand to burn their gas here for their own purposes, but BC Hydro has been denied the same privilege,” the panel wrote.

Cost of renewables dropping rapidly, cost of dams increasing

Merran Smith, executive director of Clean Energy Canada, says the cost of renewables has gone down rapidly in the past five years, with solar costs dropping 80 per cent and wind costs dropping 35 per cent.

And we only see those lines continuing down, so a decade from now, the cost one will assume will be lower,” Smith told DeSmog Canada. “Whereas the cost for building large dams is only going up.”

After conserving as much as possible, it makes most sense to build new electricity supply where it’s needed, Smith says.

There’s renewable potential all over this province, so rather than having one large dam in the north with a huge transmission line, we can create renewable energy in the regions where it’s needed,” she says.

Given this, Smith questions whether Site C is the best path forward for British Columbians.

Why would we lock ourselves into a very expensive large dam when we could build units in clean, efficient renewable energy as we need it and where we need it?”

Photo: “Geothermal borehole house” by Lydur Skulason via Flickr