I was wrong about the Site C dam

Despite what I said earlier, Site C is a mistake. The massive dam is being built in the Peace River region of northeastern British Columbia.

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Dams are not a mistake. Hydroelectricity has made B.C. the envy of the world with cheap, renewable electricity produced with nothing but water falling through turbines.

Unlike other renewable sources of electricity, hydroelectricity is always on. In 2015, I effused:

“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.”

Can you really have too much green electricity?, I thought.

Dams are good but not Site C. Let me list the problems:

The first is the cost. As a concept, the cost of Site C started out at $3.5-billion. When plans were actually drawn up, price tag rose to $6.9-billion. Then the estimate rose to $8.8 billion after the BC Liberals approved it in 2014. When the NDP government decided to go ahead with the dam, the estimate was rose to $10.7 billion. The costs are sure to go up further due to the next vexing problem:

The soil at the dam site is unstable. Soft sedimentary shale underlies the construction site and the problem was evident from the start. Harvey Elwin, one of the country’s most experienced dam engineers noted that he’s never seen such appalling foundation conditions for a project of this scale. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that a proposed fix would that would make matters worse -pouring massive amounts of concrete into the site would exacerbate instability and “could cause the notoriously unstable shale rock to move even further.”

Then there is the problem of demand. By the time the dam is scheduled to be completed in 2025, there is expected to be little need for the power it produces. Right now, we have 50 per cent more electricity than we need. And that doesn’t include the large quantity available under rights of the Columbia River Treaty.

To recover the costs of the dam, the price we pay for electricity will not be cheap. The new price will be $120/MWh, even more than the $87/MWh from Independent Power Producers -a rate considered to be too high; and much more than the price of $30/MWh under the Columbia River Treaty.

The politics of the dam, always convoluted, are simpler than the construction of the dam. BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark vowed to push Site C through in 2014. When NDP Premier Horgan inherited the project, he claimed that the project had been developed beyond the point of no return.

The real reason Horgan went ahead with Site C was because to cancel it would have given the opposition BC Liberals a chance to tag the NDP with the usual “anti-business” label. And the BC Liberals could hardly oppose a project they had started.

Now that Horgan has a majority government he will reconsider the future of the dam, cut his losses, and pull the plug on Site C.

You heard it first here.

Germany pays customers to use electricity

German power companies paid customers to use electricity on one hundred occasions in 2017. Companies paid customers a lot relative to what they normally receive -1,720 times more per kilowatt hour.

   photo: CleanTechnica

The reason why power companies were so eager to pay customers had to do with the wind. Wind turbines were generating too much power on the grid and they had to dump it quickly. Surplus electricity is a dangerous problem that has to be corrected quickly.

While wind turbines can be switched off quickly, fossil fuel and nuclear sources can’t. Power grid managers have to agile to compensate for gusty winds.

The problem with surplus electricity is that voltage quickly rises and that can damage equipment. Power grid engineering is complex but one thing is simple: power in equals power out. Managing the grid requires a balance in the production and consumption of electricity. The sum of all the power used by your TVs and toasters, and all that of your neighbour’s, equals the power produced by generators. If the power produced is more than what’s used, something has to give.  What gives is a precipitous rise in voltage.

Christmas Day, 2017, was pleasantly warm in Germany and the wind was strong. As well, demand was abnormally low being a holiday when factories and offices are shut down. Suddenly, the wind blew and power companies had to shed a lot of power from the grid. So the plea went out from power companies to start wasting electricity. Turn on your electric heaters and all the lights in your house. Open the doors. We’ll pay a lot is you do.

Too much wind power is not unforeseen. Germany spent $250 billion to develop wind turbines and they now produce 20 per cent of the country’s power. The remainder of Germany’s power comes from fossil fuels and nuclear.

Germany has obviously solved one part of the greenhouse gas problem by investing heavily in renewable sources but the other side remains unresolved –how to store surplus energy. Battery technology doesn’t have the capacity to store huge amounts of power. If it did, surplus wind power could have been stored.

Batteries will work on a smaller, household scale. Elon Musk sells his Tesla Powerwall battery for $7,000 and it holds enough power to run your house for about 3 days. Imagine being paid to store electricity and then to use it to supply your energy needs for days? In Germany, you’d be doing yourself and the power company a favour.

If you live in B.C., not so much. British Columbia has the enviable position of generating power by hydroelectricity; 95 per cent of it with the remainder by natural gas plants.

B.C. can’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially by switching to wind and solar. Small scale installations in houses can reduce the cost of electricity for homeowners. Because dams hold stored power, storage of surplus electricity is not a problem.

Germany has reduced the burning of fossil fuels with wind and solar. Now, if they could only find some way to store the surplus electricity.