A river runs through it 

Independent hydropower energizes debate in the Sea to Sky

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  • A river runs through it

On a sunny weeknight in May, more than 20 locals marched the streets of Pemberton to the elementary school with placards reading, "keep our rivers wild!," heading for a meeting about a proposed hydroelectric power plant on Pemberton Creek, which would be part-owned by the Village of Pemberton. That creek runs literally through the back of town, and connects to a stunning waterfall a steep 20-minute hike up the hill, which can be seen and heard from many homes in Pemberton.

The mood at the elementary school meeting was tense. No one actually threw rotten vegetables at the speakers, though afterwards one person did ask the VOP's chief administrative officer Daniel Sailland how he could sleep at night.

After brief presentations, attendees were invited to write up what they liked about the idea. Twenty-seven people simply wrote "Nothing!" on a post-it-note and slapped it on one poster.

The idea of putting an independent power plant in Pemberton's backyard met with such fierce opposition from residents that council decided this June to put the project on hold — for now. "There's no rush. We have a five-year window, and a good portion of the community isn't with us on this," says Sailland.

Before its license to explore hydroelectric options on the creek runs out in five years' time, Pemberton will instead work on a broader community vision for if and how they want to contribute to B.C.'s power generation, and investigate the pros and cons of other community-led power projects in B.C., like Nelson's community-owned hydroelectric plant on the Kootenay River.

If, at the end of those five years, Pemberton has done nothing else to explore power production on their creek, its license to investigate that option will revert back to the province — and someone else could pick up the baton. So the long-term prospect of a power plant in Pemberton's backyard still remains a possibility.

Meanwhile, opposition against the Pemberton Creek and other nearby projects seems to have increased B.C. residents' awareness of run-of-river hydroelectric independent power plants (IPPs) in general, says Craig Orr of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. There are dozens of projects approved and not yet built in B.C., including many in the Sea to Sky region (see box).

And, despite environmental assessments, no one really knows what the cumulative impact will be. A research group based at Simon Fraser University is now gearing up to try and assess that — providing some data with which people can intelligently judge the relative impacts of one power source over another.

Every proposed IPP is different, but concerns centre on the same things: destruction of wildlife habitat, interference with recreational uses like river kayaking, noise and visual pollution, minimal contribution to the local economy, and lax government regulation and monitoring compounded by poor compliance. For some, nothing is worth these risks. For others it's a balance of opportunity versus risk.

Much of the opposition has an environmental slant, despite the fact that IPPs have been given a theoretical thumbs-up from many environmental organizations, including the U.S.-based grassroots group 350.org. The thinking goes that run-of-river hydropower produces practically zero carbon dioxide emissions. If the world's biggest problem is climate change, then it might be worth cutting access roads into the wilderness to replace coal-burning power plants with hydropower.

"We can love our salmon-bearing streams and our grizzly bears, but if we have four degrees of warming, who cares? They're not going to be around. You need to put it in the bigger picture," says Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria climate scientist and the newly elected Green Party member of B.C.'s legislature. "There are a lot of vested interests that come into play," he admits. BC Hydro's plans have been affected by politics, unions and business interests. But the solution isn't to abandon a push for renewable energy, he says: "It's about regulation."

Those who agree with this perspective but still oppose the Pemberton IPP proposal risk taking a hypocritical "NIMBY" position: happy with the idea of well-monitored IPPs, so long as they're "not in my backyard".

B.C. will need more energy from somewhere as usage starts to outstrip our supply. The question is whether the environmental and social impacts of many distributed power sources, like IPPs, are better or worse for the planet and our communities than large dam-based hydro or fossil fuel-burning plants. And if IPPs come out the winner, then where should they be placed?

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