Now you see ’em, now you don't
Whistler's not so elusive Hydro lines
By Stephen Vogler
Imagine what it would feel like to have 960,000 volts of electricity coursing through you. Unless you have a penchant for climbing hydro-electric towers you won't find out first hand, but that is the amount of power that surges through the Whistler valley at any given time. While we go about our days skiing, biking and working in the mountains, electrons chase themselves over our heads at nearly 300,000 kilometres a second in a race to Vancouver.
The hydro transmission lines are undeniably a prominent feature of the Whistler landscape. But they are subject to that strange optical phenomenon whereby the more times we look at something, the smaller it seems to get. After living near them for any length of time we somehow manage to white them out from our view. Or to use a more up to date metaphor, we click on them and drag them to the edge of our vision. About the only time I really notice the power lines these days is when I walk beneath them on a rainy day, wondering whether the fuzzy electric sounds will cause my hair to stand on end and sparks to fly between the fillings in my molars.
But as much as we may try to erase those transmission lines from our minds, the fact is they cut a very real swath through the valley. Within the Resort Municipality alone, the hydro line easements occupy 266 hectares — or 1.6 per cent of the total land base of the town. But just as the world doesn't end at the boundaries of Whistler, neither do the high voltage transmission lines. They stretch like a long gnarled finger from Vancouver up into the far reaches of the province.
To learn more about the power lines, I spoke to Mike Gwilliam, manager of Lower Mainland Transmission for B.C. Hydro, through a different set of wires that connect us to Vancouver — those of the phone company. He informed me that three separate transmission lines, or circuits, run through the Whistler Valley. The two smaller ones, which were built in 1948 and 1958, operate at 230 kilovolts each and carry power down from a generation plant at Bridge River, just east of Goldbridge. Both lines hook into the Rainbow substation near Mons, supplying power to the Whistler area. The larger 500 kilovolt line brings power all the way down from Hudson's Hope and the Gordon M. Shrum generating station. For those of you from out of province, that's in north-eastern B.C. near Fort St. John — okay, I'll admit I had to look it up in an atlas too. The 500 Kv line supplies approximately 25 per cent of the Lower Mainland's and Vancouver Island's power needs.
In many ways, power lines like the ones running through Whistler are a perfect symbol of the province's resources feeding the economy of the urban area in the south-west corner. Like rail lines and highways, they provide a powerful link between the resource-rich province and its centres of power. But like any line that traverses the land, especially the rugged terrain of B.C., power lines are just as vulnerable as they are powerful. Lines, by their very nature, are not difficult to disrupt, be it by natural phenomena like floods or fires, or by disgruntled citizens. Blockading roads and rail lines, despite the illegality, has proven to be the quickest way to gain the attention of the powers that be on any given issue. We've seen it happen on the railroad tracks near Prince George, on logging roads throughout the province, and close to home on the road through Mount Currie. The people in power are quick to realize that without their lifelines into the rest of the province, their power soon dwindles.
A city without electricity is much like a body without blood. It simply can't survive. The Lower Mainland might get by without 25 per cent of its electrical supply, but the remaining 75 per cent is also transmitted through Hydro lines from other parts of the province (mainly the Kootenays). The lifeblood of Greater Vancouver depends on those relatively skinny strands of wire spanning thousands of kilometres of rugged mountain terrain.
Whistler is in a similar situation. If power ever stopped flowing south from Bridge River, the resort would come to a standstill. People with wood heat and propane stoves could withstand a winter, but the economic engines of the two ski mountains and the village would quickly grind to a halt.
The vulnerability of transmission lines isn't the only negative aspect of transmitting power long distances from big hydro generation plants. The huge dams built to harness hydro power have made dramatic changes to B.C.'s natural landscape. At Arrow Lake in the Kootenays, whole towns sit under hundreds of feet of water, vacated when a hydro project flooded the entire river valley. The most serious environmental impact of large hydro projects, however, has been the disruption or decimation of fish runs throughout B.C.'s river systems. Disrupted water courses, low water levels and altered temperatures have all wreaked havoc on salmon runs. The Daisy Lake dam on the Cheakamus River south of Whistler was found last year to be discharging insufficient flows of water over the last 40 years, resulting in diminished fish stocks. Projects such as the Kenney Dam on the Nechako River can be even more devastating to fish stocks because they are many times bigger and affect the flows on a much longer water course.
Controlling vegetation growth under transmission lines is another area of environmental concern. Gwilliam says that B.C. Hydro's vegetation program consists of a combination of clearing and herbicide application in areas where that is deemed more cost effective. He points out that aerial spraying of herbicides is not used and that hand spraying and capsule injection are a much more controlled methods of applying herbicides. For people living below transmission lines in a wet coastal climate, any amount of herbicide use is often seen as too much.
The use of high voltage transmission lines also raises some public health questions. Over the past 15 years, intensive research has been done into the possible health risks of electromagnetic fields. EMFs are associated with transmission wires, distribution lines to houses and even electrical devices and appliances within the home. So far, the various studies have come up with differing results. A 1996 study by the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. states: "There is no conclusive evidence that electromagnetic fields play a role in the development of cancer, reproductive and developmental abnormalities and behavioural problems."
A B.C. Hydro information sheet, however, points out that the same study found a "persistent correlation... between the proximity of homes to certain distribution lines and an increased risk for childhood leukemia but that the correlation did not seem to be related to measured fields." Three new childhood leukemia studies will be completed this year, one of them in Canada, and B.C. Hydro is closely monitoring the findings.
For a society that has become so dependent on electricity, are there any viable alternatives to large hydroelectric projects and extensive networks of transmission lines? Gwilliam points to the use of gas turbines, which are currently used in some areas to bolster existing supplies during peak periods.
"Gas turbines have proved to be very efficient," he said. "Were they to be put in a local area, you might eliminate the need for future high voltage transmission lines." But he says nothing like that is being looked at right now for the Sea To Sky Corridor. Another possibility, which lies further off in the future, is the use of hydrogen fuel cells. The same technology which the Ballard company is currently testing in some of Vancouver's buses, and which Mercedes Benz is set to use in cars very soon, could also be employed for household and industrial power. There may be a time, perhaps 20 or 25 years from now, when you might go to the local store to get your household fuel cell recharged, much like we do today with propane bottles for the barbecue. The only problem is, my propane bottle usually runs out when the chicken is half cooked — the computer and all the house lights might just as likely run out of fuel cell power when I'm halfway through writing an article.
There are other technologies available today which are bringing electrical generation back to a more local level. Solar panels not only store heat, but can produce enough electricity to run a home. A company on Lasqueti Island builds small hydro generators which can supply a house with enough electricity from any nearby creek. Windmills, tidal energy and geothermal energy are all possible alternatives which might one day find a place in the province. While B.C. will likely always utilize its huge stores of potential hydroelectric power, the way we harness that power may change as alternative technologies become more and more efficient. Just as the computer is enabling people to work outside of large urban centres, new energy technologies may one day make us less dependent on mega hydro projects and the grid of transmission wires which they necessitate.
One local project which is already in operation is the small scale generator on the Soo River. Doug Goodbrand began work on the project after B.C. Hydro announced a program in 1987 to encourage the development of small independent power producers (IPPs). The plant consists of a small dam and a 12 megawatt hydro generator which Goodbrand describes as "pretty unintrusive."
Rather than damming the river to create a reservoir of water, the Soo River project harnesses the energy of the running water by funnelling it through the turbines. The amount of power generated is dependent on seasonal flows in the river, but the environmental disturbance is minimal. The power is transmitted through its own line to the Rainbow substation in Whistler. In summer, when flows are up, the Soo River generator can provide all of Whistler's power needs. In winter, the demand for power goes up while the flow of water in the Soo drops, making us once again dependent on generation from Bridge River.
If large hydro projects together with high voltage transmission lines are ever made obsolete by newer local-based technologies, the Whistler Valley will be left with an empty swath running down its length. The freed up land would be drooled over by both developers, with condos and dollar signs in their eyes, and by environmentalists looking to protect the liberated wetlands. Untold hours of public meetings, planning sessions and council debates would be required to decide the ultimate fate of the land. On the other hand, it might be months or even years before any of us even noticed that the power lines had been removed.