Friday, March 27, 2009

Big picture essential when deciding on run-of-river projects

Once upon a time, a previous generation of British Columbians made tough, costly choices on behalf of future citizens. Now it’s our turn, with no certainty that we’re ready for it.
B.C. has enjoyed a seemingly limitless supply of cheap “green” electricity for 40 years thanks to the giant dams built on the Peace and Columbia rivers back when mega-projects and environmental sensitivities weren’t quite so at odds with each other.
But in recent years the population has grown to the point that we’re using more electricity than we generate. The painful process of figuring out what to do about that is underway, but with all-new challenges and complexities that render much of our previous hydro history moot as a guide for what needs to be done.
Is the provincial government up to the task? That’s a big question, as revealed in this week’s headlines about the feverish interest building in the private sector over “run of river” projects. Using similar principles to the big dam sites but on a much smaller scale, such projects are busting out all over B.C., with virtually no public process in place to ponder what it’s all going to mean at the end of the day.
We can’t have it all ways, of course. If we want continued access to inexpensive, abundant electricity generated in ways that are relatively easy on the environment, we’re going to have to tolerate some fairly major industrial development along the way.
As those massive dams on the Peace attest, reliable and affordable electricity always comes at something of a price. You simply can’t produce a consistent supply of clean electricity without cutting down trees, altering scenic vistas, threatening fish and erecting new power lines.
Renewable energy sources such as wind and water may sound gentle and benign. And when you’re talking about a little hydro project on the creek at the back of your property, maybe they are. But the infrastructure needed to harness such natural resources at a provincial scale is considerable.
The 17 projects being proposed by Plutonic Power Corporation for Bute Inlet, for instance, will each require construction of a powerhouse, a flooded area that at minimum is the size of a soccer field, and river diversions of anywhere from two to nine kilometres. In total they’ll require more than 300 kilometres of new roads and 450 kilometres of new power lines, all of it in a pristine part of the province.
It could be that we just need to suck it up and deal with all that if we want to keep the electricity coming. Environmentalists have been touting run-of-river for many years as a green alternative, and B.C. is blessed with an abundance of the kind of rivers that lend themselves well to such projects. (To be profitable for private developers, river segments tagged for diversion require a grade of at least 10 per cent.)
Several run-of-river projects are already in place on Vancouver Island, and nobody’s been howling about devastated rivers and landscapes so far. Most rivers tapped for hydro use are in remote areas anyway, so it’s not like we have to look at them on our way to work every morning.
But the truth is that we’re newbies to this business of run-of-river. And the very fact that it all takes place in remote locations means most of us will have no real clue as to the size and scope of such projects, or their impact on the local environment.
Nor do we know the cumulative impact of going ahead with several dozen such projects all at once. Many are significantly larger than anything B.C. has seen to date. All are envisaged as privately owned and managed projects.
None of that is necessarily a bad thing. But these are uncharted waters for B.C. It’s infinitely wise to proceed with great caution when starting into something new, yet government is plunging in with what appears to be wild abandon.
Yes, there is a lengthy permitting process in place for run-of-river projects - one that many proponents won’t make it through. But can we be certain that developers are getting the thorough once-over given that BC Hydro is on a tight timeline for striking new deals with private suppliers? Is anyone keeping an eye on the big picture?
Sober second thought. Public input. Careful consideration of long-term impacts. B.C.’s Liberals have been consistently weak in all these areas. If we’re not yet worried about what that will mean this time out, we ought to be.