Site C hydro power is a good idea, but not now

Like wind and solar energy, hydroelectricity is one of the greenest sources of power. That said, it’s only one factor in building Site C dam on the Peace River (artist’s conception below).

site c

The question is not whether hydro is a good idea but if Site C should be built now says professor Marvin Shaffer, research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in The Tyee:

“The key question now is: should the government make an essentially irreversible decision to start construction on Site C potentially years before that decision actually needs to be made?”

The government wants the dam built sooner than later so it can power the production of liquefied natural gas, part of Premier Clark’s dream of making B.C. an energy exporter. With tumbling oil and gas prices, her dream is fading and the production of LNG will likely be scaled back.

An independent review of the project found that BC Hydro could supply the province with electricity, without the new dam, with modest growth in LNG production, until 2028.

Unlike other sources of green energy, hydro power is ready to go when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Water–filled dams are like a huge battery, fully charged, ready to produce power at the flick of a switch.

Despite this obvious advantage, B.C. doesn’t need this massive pool of energy right now. What we need are smaller sources of power that can be switched on when needed most; such as in the dead of winter when many British Columbians in temperate regions turn on their electric heaters.

Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett argues that Site C will produce cheaper power than the costly than the mix of run-of-river and wind projects that private power advocates argue for – a tacit admission that former Premier Campbell’s grand plan to privatize power has not delivered the cheap electricity that open markets supposedly do.

However, Minister Bennett’s argument doesn’t address the real question. While hydro is greener and cheaper, and while the dam will eventually be on-line, we need more peak power now.

“Put another way, BC Hydro doesn’t need more supply per se; it needs greater ability to produce electricity in the specific hours when needed,” explains professor Shaffer.

So, maybe the excess electricity could be sold to the U.S.? One study from the University of Washington indicates that their winter power needs will decrease due to global warming. Power from Site C would be likely be sold at a loss unless LNG production picks up to a level that no one expects but the premier.

To meet the peak requirements we need now, a better plan would be to add capacity to the existing Revelstoke dam and GM Shrum station on the WAC Bennett dam. The cost of getting the peak power we need now would be about $1 billion cheaper than the big dam of future for power we don’t need.

“Site C would be too late for what BC Hydro needs and would offer far too much of what it doesn’t need. There is a better strategy,” summarizes professor Shaffer.



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