It wasn’t an easy birth. The private companies opposed it. It took the vision of one man to bring BC Hydro into existence in1961. Before that, a patchwork of power companies supplied the province. The largest, BC Electric, served the lower mainland. Premier W.A.C. Bennett had a dream. He wanted a single provincial power grid but the power commission of the day was dragging their feet explains Norman Farrell in The Tyee, (September 12, 2016.)
“But Bennett, premier since 1952 and an MLA since 1941, was unhappy with the power commission. He wanted faster expansion of the electrical grid — and he wanted greater control.”
Bennett faced problems in the creation of BC Hydro. His vision included the Two Rivers Policy –the damming of the Peace and Columbia rivers –something BC Electric wasn’t interested in doing. Worse still, BC Electric was antagonistic: proclaiming that they would not buy power from the Peace River dam even if it was built.
Damming the Columbia River presented a different problem. Kaiser Aluminum wanted to build a dam on the river, not for generation of public power but for the production of aluminum. Outrageously, they wanted to control water flow so that power could be generated in the U.S. by the Kaiser’s parent company.
Bennett was not going to see Canadian water go to the U.S. for hydro power, so he negotiated a deal with U.S. Kaiser to receive 20 per cent of the power generated downstream plus taxes and water license fees. The Government of Canada, headed by PM Diefenbaker, quashed the deal citing federal jurisdiction.
By now, Bennett had enough. In 1961, with the support of the NDP forerunner (the CCF), he seized control of the private BC Electric and formed the public crown corporation BC Hydro. Bennett understood the obvious: governments can borrow money cheaper than private developers. Now he could proceed with a plan that would span generations; something that private developers, who require quick returns, would never do.
Things were falling in place at the federal level, too. Liberal PM Lester B. Pearson replaced Diefenbaker as prime minister. Pearson negotiated a deal with the U.S. that effectively restored the former Kaiser one. With the money raised from the Columbia deal, Bennett built the Peace River hydro dam eight years later.
The ruin of BC Hydro came when the Campbell government decided to re-privatize power generation. Ideology drove Campbell into thinking that privately operated generators could do a better job. To push his ideology, he had to subsidize private suppliers in order to get generators built.
Campbell’s gift to private operators was to lock in prices that BC Hydro would have to pay. Last year, BC Hydro bought power from private sources at nine cents per kilowatt hour and sold it at three cents.
It doesn’t take a marketing genius to figure that selling a product at one-third what you pay for it is not good business. Worse, the BC Liberals are pushing for more hydro production at Site C on the Peace River –power that will be hard to sell in a market with flat prices.
NDP critic Adrian Dix said BC Hydro’s errors are a disaster for domestic customers and taxpayers.
“Both the government and BC Hydro misread the market years ago and are pushing ahead hoping no one notices,” Dix said. “The company failed to admit previous errors in demand forecasting and continues similar projections without explanation.”