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A river runs through it

Independent hydropower energizes debate in the Sea to Sky

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 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?


BC Hydro predicts that our province's power demand will grow to 50 per cent more than current usage over the next two decades, though these numbers are notoriously hard to forecast. "They depend on economic growth rates and decisions about resource development that are beyond Hydro's control. So the key thing is to have a flexible plan in the face of uncertainty. In general, BC Hydro does a pretty good job with this," says environmental economist Mark Jaccard of Simon Fraser University.

Up to 66 per cent of this increase in demand is expected to be soaked up by improving energy efficiency and reducing usage according to BC Hydro — a target that many academics, including Jaccard, consider highly optimistic. That leaves a large shortfall that has to come from somewhere, and, given current government policy, has to come from a "green" resource (B.C. is currently in the enviable position of having 93 per cent of its electricity coming from renewable, low-emissions sources, compared to about 20 per cent globally).

"If we're not going to burn fossil fuels, our options are fairly few. Run of river is one of the few things we have in abundance," says Wendy Palen, an ecologist at Simon Fraser University who is studying the impact of IPPs.

Nigel Protter, head of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, a local Pembertonian and long-time consultant for IPPs in the region, agrees. Solar simply isn't economic for electricity in B.C., he says. "Wind and hydro are both excellent least-worst options" when it comes to collateral damage on the environment, he says. "It's not a case of either/or. We need everything we can get."

In 2002, the BC Liberal government responded to the projected energy shortfall by putting out a call for energy production from private companies — whether that came from biomass burning or wind or hydropower. The result was a "gold rush" on B.C.'s rivers. As of 2012, some 1,100 applications had been submitted for water licenses to explore the possibility of power production on various creeks and rivers. These are "run of river" or "river diversion" projects, where a large percentage of a river's water is diverted through pipes, and the pressure is used to produce power. The water is returned to the river lower down.

There are about 45 operational run-of-river IPPs in B.C., with 34 more approved but not yet producing power. About a fifth of these are in the Sea to Sky region. When asked about their current view of IPPs, a spokesman for the Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Natural Gas said: "We are committed to working with the Clean Energy sector to ensure that there remain significant opportunities for renewable energy companies to provide power to British Columbians."

The approved projects include several high-profile efforts, including a 106.7MW Innergex run-of-river project on the Upper Lillooet River and North Creek, around 60 km northwest of Pemberton — which still aims to start construction this autumn, despite a speed bump in June when it was denied a "temporary use" permit from the regional district, needed for some of the building work.

This project, too, has the capacity to impact a local landmark, reducing the water going over Keyhole Falls to as little as one-fifth of normal flow in summer (there won't be any other visual impacts on the falls, Innergex promises, and access to the Pebble Creek Hot Springs will be maintained).

There is also a large project on the Holmes River in northern British Columbia, consisting of 10 sites each producing less than 15 MW along 40 kilometres of river. This effort has attracted attention because the company has been given a reprieve from the more stringent environmental assessment required for projects of over 50MW. Environmental groups recently took the effort to court, arguing that the project should be considered as one giant whole, but the B.C. Supreme Court disagreed in a May 18 ruling stating that it did not need to be treated as a single large-scale entity.

There has been much debate about whether B.C. really needs all the energy it has commissioned, and whether it comes at too high a price. The companies that develop IPPs have fixed long-term contracts with BC Hydro — the original goal was to commission enough to make B.C. self-sufficient even in a low-water year. In the short term, this can produce a surplus of power. Meanwhile, cheaper electricity supplies have emerged from elsewhere, thanks to a decline in U.S. demand following the 2008 financial collapse, and a surge in unconventional fossil fuel supplies (particularly natural gas from hydraulic fracturing — a technique that can access vast supplies of gas trapped inside hard rock, but which has fuelled controversy about possible contamination of drinking water supplies).

This has left BC Hydro paying through the teeth for power from the IPPs — by some calculations it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars more than if it had bought the electricity on the open market. The BC New Democratic Party put out a press release in February 2013 saying this had cost BC Hydro $300 million in 2013. Many — including BC NDP leader Adrian Dix, economist Erik Andersen, political commentator Rafe Mair, and local protestors such as farmer Louise Ludlam-Taylor — fear massive debts for BC Hydro and large rate increases for electricity customers.

"If people understood what all this is going to do to our rates, there would be more than four people here protesting," said Ludlam-Taylor, one of Pemberton's fiercest opponents to IPPs, at a small protest outside an Innergex job fair for the Upper Lillooet project in June.

In the long term, says Protter, British Columbians may be grateful for a stable, local, green energy supply to meet all their needs, built by private companies that can shoulder the risk of new power projects better than a public concern.

Jaccard has noted that electricity rates are bound to increase regardless of where we get our new power from, since new installations of any kind will be more expensive than legacy systems. On his blog he recently wrote: "throughout the world, new supplies of electricity cost more. In British Columbia, some increase in electricity rates is inevitable as we blend new higher-cost supplies with the low-cost power from our hydropower legacy."

Those who argue that BC Hydro's public projects produce cheaper power than IPPs are ignoring the enormous losses incurred in projects like BC Hydro's Duke Point natural gas facility, Jaccard says. "Comparing IPP power to BC Hydro power — as the NDP wanted to do — is an unfair comparison," he says.

After two big calls for independent power projects, today there is a lull in B.C. while formerly approved projects get built. Right now there is a standing invitation from BC Hydro for smaller power plants of under 15MW, but no immediate plans for another big energy call. This could change.

There have also been protests against the proposed 900MW 'Site C' hydroelectric project that would dam the Peace River, flooding more than 5,000 hectares of land.

If this proposed project falls through in the next year or two, then BC Hydro will have to go elsewhere to make up that power — presumably with a new call for projects including run-of-river.

In anticipation of such calls, companies continue to explore their options in the Sea to Sky. Innergex and its subsidiaries alone are looking at the possibility of hydropower on a long list of well-known creeks in the region, including Callaghan Creek, Joffre, Owl, Twin One, Lizzie and Ipsoot. Maps showing applications for water licenses are peppered with dots — most densely in the area between the Sea to Sky and the Sunshine Coast. Any project takes years to move from application for a water license, through to having a license to investigate, applying for a permit and going through public consultations and environmental assessments, before a decision is made about whether it will be built.

The Lil'wat Nation, which has not taken a general position on IPPs, but instead considers them on a case-by-case basis, has a handful of projects on its table right now at various stages of this process.


The idea of putting a hydroelectric plant on Pemberton Creek dates back more than a decade. Summit Power originally held a water licence on the creek, giving it permission to explore the possibility of a hydroelectric plant. But the company faced serious opposition from the Village of Pemberton's (VOP) then-mayor Elinor Warner, says current mayor and newly elected Liberal MLA Jordan Sturdy.

In 2005, Sturdy and his then new council reconsidered the idea, thinking about both contributing to B.C.'s green energy and adding some dollars to the community's coffers. "We were looking for alternative revenue sources and opportunities for the community," says Sturdy. "We have continual requests and demands for more services. Where do we get that money?"

They picked up the water license in 2007 for about $5,000. Summit Power's feasibility study concluded that, given the creek's water flow, a 12-15MW plant would be possible and potentially of economic merit. [ ] The water intake would be above Pemberton Falls, and the power station could be put either in a corner of the Benchlands housing development, or down by the railway bridge behind the elementary school. The falls would still exist, though perhaps with only 10 per cent of its current flow, according to the feasibility study.

In 2011, a joint-council economic development workshop between the Lil'wat Nation and Pemberton put a community power project as a top priority. They started discussions with "Public-Private-Partnership" (P3) Canada, which gives out loans for such projects.  But by 2012, Sturdy says P3 Canada shifted its focus away from such small schemes, and with no further action taken, Pemberton was in danger of losing its license. To keep it on the table, Pemberton put out a call for expressions of interest, just to see if any companies or organizations would, in principle, be keen to develop something. They received seven proposals, along with a renewal of their license on the creek for another five years.

The proposition is an expensive one. A community-run project would cost the village a non-refundable $200,000 to $400,000 in investigation alone, and about $40 million in total to build, to be shared amongst any partners. Profit, which isn't guaranteed, would come back to the community slowly over time. So far, says Sturdy, about $20,000 has been spent on the idea over the last six years, out of Pemberton's annual budget of $1.4 million (Similar smaller projects have been built elsewhere, including a micro-project on West Vancouver's Eagle Lake, which cost the district $328,000 in total). 

Some residents want the spending to stop now. "We shouldn't be spending all this money when the objection is so obvious," says Anna Helmer, of the Helmer potato farm in Pemberton Meadows. "I'm a taxpayer, and I don't want to go broke over this."

While the VOP has put the idea on ice, little can kill it cold. Pemberton is now commissioning a hydrological report about its watershed. "We need to do a hydrological study anyway, to understand possible impacts of chemical spills for example," says Sailland.

If this study shows that a power project would negatively affect the drinking water resource, the project will die in perpetuity — though there could be engineering solutions to some problems, such as moving the power plant further upstream, according to Sailland.

If the VOP loses the water license, a company could pick it up and run with it. That seems unlikely given the local mood: Innergex spokesperson Bas Brusche says they simply wouldn't go ahead with a project under such a cloud of local dissent. "There needs to be sufficient local support. Currently, it is difficult to imagine that the project could go ahead," he says. 

That said, no one interviewed — including Brusche — has ever heard of an IPP project in B.C. that has been stopped by community protest.

Meanwhile, says Brusche, the furore over the Pemberton Creek proposal has overflowed onto Innergex's Upper Lillooet project. "I wouldn't say that there's massive concern in the community, but it has increased," he says, with more and more protests appearing long after their public consultation and environmental assessment. "I think the Pemberton Creek project has affected the mood."


So how green and responsible is hydropower? No energy source has zero impact on the planet: fossil fuels release greenhouse gases, wind turbines can threaten birds and solar panels require toxic elements that need to be mined and disposed of responsibly. The little evidence that exists about the overall impact of hydropower shows it can be seen as green or not green, depending on how you look at it, and on how specific projects are run.

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, run-of-river projects are king. Over a project's lifetime, it produces as little as 0.5 kg of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of power produced, mostly from building the power plant in the first place. Compare that to about 50 kg/MWhr for wind, up to 250 kg/MWhr for dammed-reservoir hydropower (thanks to emissions from rotting, flooded vegetation), 400-500 kg/MWhr for natural gas, and a whopping 900-1200 kg/MWhr for coal.

Some, including the Green Party's Weaver, argue that this green advantage should be weighted extremely heavily when considering overall environmental impacts of hydropower.


But there are impacts on the water and forests. One recent study by water resource engineer Kelly Kibler of Oregon State University found that, in China at least, the ecological impacts of many small hydroprojects can be larger, overall, than those of a single dam, particularly since regulatory oversight can be weaker on smaller projects. "You cannot call them green or clean," claims Ludlam-Taylor.

The stretch of river between the intake and powerhouse of any IPP holds much less water than usual — at times it can run dry thanks to equipment malfunction or other errors. Problems can happen downstream too, according to the Tamed Rivers report by Watershed Watch. A diverted river might flood less frequently than a natural one, for example, and that can create a buildup of fine sediments that make it hard for fish eggs to survive. The shallow stretch can also warm waters in summer, or allow them to freeze in winter. No one yet knows the precise impacts of these effects.

The documented number of fish killed per project per year is small: there were just 94 fish deaths reported in 2010 from seven incidents at three hydropower stations — far fewer than the number of fish killed by recreational fishing. The total number of fish killed by all projects is undocumented and unknown.

"It's very difficult to measure fish mortality. The precautionary thing is to look at damage to fish habitat," says Gwen Barlee, policy director for the Wilderness Committee.

IPPs are meant to control the water flow fluctuations, but this doesn't always happen. A freedom-of-information request by the Wilderness Committee in 2010 found more than 300 instances of non-compliance with such rules in B.C. "I'm concerned about the Department of Fisheries and Ocean's ability to monitor these things; they've had a lot of staff cuts," says Watershed Watch's Orr.

Worryingly, adds Barlee, "where there are documented issues, there don't appear to be fines or repercussions." Some wrist slapping might be going on behind closed doors, she notes.

For local Pemberton potato farmer and IPP-protestor Jeanette Helmer, the most frightening thing is the tendency for large corporations beholden to their share-holders to seek out profit at all costs. "We the people have trusted the government to take care of our land — and now they're selling it off," she says. "The Utilities Commission used to have teeth but that's been watered down. These great big companies couldn't care less about us."

Curt Walker, chief administrative officer for the Lil'wat Nation, has a different view. He notes that they have logged about 7,000 hours in consultation and study with Innergex about the Upper Lillooet project, and the band will manage its own compliance and monitoring program. "They've taken a number of steps on the environmental side," says Walker about Innergex. "They not only say they're going to do stuff, they actually do it."

The Pemberton Wildlife Association (PWA) has flagged several rivers in the Sea to Sky region as particularly unsuitable for development, including the Birkenhead River because of its fish, and the Ryan River because of its grizzly bears. "We have asked for a moratorium on IPP's in the Upper Lillooet River watershed, pending the completion of a land use planning process," says the association's Allen McEwan. They'd like to see all stakeholders get together and develop a plan for the entire region, rather than waiting for power companies to initiate projects one creek at a time. "The current process appears to be driven by the proponents, with no overall land-use planning in place," he says.

Others say such a strategy is impractical. "There's an idea that every river in the Sea to Sky should be assessed, so we can put together a plan that would maximize potential and minimize impact. But when you get into what it takes to assess a waterway, each one needs a full-on assessment," says Sturdy. "Those are long-term, big ticket items."

The Upper Lillooet watershed is home to about 40 grizzly bears in two threatened populations: the Squamish-Lillooet and South Chilcotin Ranges. Construction could theoretically frighten bears away from their dens or foraging grounds on the river, or allow poachers easier access along new roads. Innergex has promised to contribute to grizzly research projects, and avoid construction when bears are foraging for spawning salmon, amongst other things. But this doesn't satisfy everyone. "With grizzly bear numbers as low as they currently are, the loss of a single bear is a major concern," notes McEwan.

How much will these projects really affect wildlife in the region? No one really knows. "There's not a lot of actual science or data to inform the conversation," says SFU's Palen, a researcher who is aiming to fix that. Now is a great time to be filling in the blanks on the evidence, she says, given the lull in new IPP projects. "There was a big flurry, and now there's a catching of breath. That's why this project is so important. We know there's a ton of capacity, so we need to step back and see if we have overstepped the science here."

Palen and colleagues have been working for about a year and a half on a new, web-based tool that will let users set their priorities (how much they want to weight the importance of the welfare of individual species, habitats, and financial cost, for example) and toggle them to see which projects make the most sense under different conditions.  "What's worse? 250 new IPPs, or one site C dam?" asks Palen — their tool will help to answer that, depending on how you define "worse." They expect to have a first product in about a year's time.

They're also out in the field helping to do monitoring on species at risk to see how they fare. One project, for example, is focusing on tailed frogs — a unique kind of frog that only lives in the Pacific Northwest. "They live in rivers that happen to be the right size and shape for run-of-river. So we want to understand what these projects actually mean to them," says Palen. "We're going to look at regions a couple of years before and a couple of years after an IPP, along with a nearby river. That's going to take a lot longer to mature."


No energy source comes without trade-offs, and these often pit one set of values against another, which can be hard to weigh up. The waterfall hike, considered a wonderful if precarious route by locals, is described in the 2007 Summit Power feasibility report as very steep and of "little recreational value" — which might be fair in terms of the number of people who use it, but not in terms of the quality of the experience.

Personal complaints are mixed in with regional and global concerns: Ray Mason, who protests the Upper Lillooet project, says his main complaint is that the project would plow roads in winter that would wipe out a route he currently uses for his Totally Awesome Adventures snowmobiling tour company. Others are most concerned about BC Hydro going bankrupt, still others about global warming.

"There are two competing, even battling forms of environmentalism: strict conservation versus sustainable development," says Protter. He leans towards the latter. The idea of conservation is increasingly complicated in a world where little is truly wild anymore. The Pemberton Creek watershed, for example, has seen about 100 hectares of trees felled for forestry since 2000, there is about eight kilometres of road already in the area, a heli-skiing operation uses the Ipsoot Glacier at the Pemberton Creek headwaters, and there was once a rifle range near the waterfall.

"I am unwilling to be 100 per cent for or against public or private power — and I urge you and your readers to distrust anyone who is," says Jaccard, who helped to design the environmental assessment process and who introduced integrated resource planning methods at the BC Utilities Commission in 1992 that are still used today.

"It all depends on the conditions. You cannot say which outcome is best without going through the process."

People like Palen are now helping to make that process more informed. In the meantime, Pembertonians won't have an IPP in their backyard — for now.

Freelance Pemberton writer Nicola Jones can see and hear the Pemberton Creek waterfall from her home. A science journalist since 2000, she is most frequently published in the journal Nature, though she contributes to many other publications.