Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Feature - Power and liquid gold

Independent power producers have staked their claims in Sea to Sky country

It isn't little nuggets of shining ore that are fuelling B.C.'s latest gold rush.

In fact, there is nothing tangible about this latest get-rich-quick craze that is sweeping the province.

But like the gold that was discovered over 150 years ago in the creeks and riverbeds, the gold of the 21 st century is also found in B.C.'s plentiful water systems.

And just as gold miners rushed to stake claims on riverbed plots, independent power producers have been anxiously submitting proposals to the provincial government to build small hydroelectric projects, also known as run of river projects, on various rivers and creeks throughout the province.

There are currently 26 small hydroelectric projects operating in B.C., including one in the Soo Valley. But since BC Hydro announced it was actively looking for green energy sources, the provincial water management branch has been inundated with applications. There are now 270 applications waiting to be processed at the water branch, according to information from the ministry of sustainable resource management. In some instances there may be more than one application per river.

Although this type of green energy production will give Canada carbon credits if it ratifies the Kyoto Protocol, the potential ramifications of manipulating the water flow on hundreds of rivers have many people worried.

"As is so often the case in B.C. when we have such bountiful resources that have such economic value, rather than approach them in a sustainable manner, we tend to exploit them," said Mitch Rhodes, the president of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE). "It's like what we've done with the forestry and fishing industries."

The green rush was generated by BC Hydro in early 2000 when the utility announced it wanted to use green energy to meet at least 10 per cent of any new domestic energy requirements over the next 10 years.

Hydro is expecting the province’s energy demand to grow at about two per cent each year.

With the technology proven, Hydro was looking at run of river projects in particular as a way of meeting this voluntary 10 per cent requirement.

"We thought there were a lot of good projects out there and the private sector really wanted to build them," said Brenda Goehring, the manager of green and alternative Energy at BC Hydro.

Although there is no universal definition of what constitutes green energy, Hydro has established four basic guidelines, which each project must meet.

In addition to it being licensable and meeting all of the necessary regulations and standards, the project must have a low impact on the surrounding environment and it must be renewable and socially responsible.

Small hydro projects are under the green umbrella because all that is generally required to operate one is the installation of a weir in the river or creek, which diverts a portion of the natural flow of water into a nearby generating station, and then back to the river. Because they are so simple and relatively small, they are also cheap to operate once initial start-up costs, including approvals and construction, are completed.

These stations then generate between 2 and 50 megawatts of power – and, some would argue, sizeable profits. One megawatt can power the equivalent of 800 homes if operating 100 per cent of the time.

The abundance of rivers in B.C. makes them a logical choice for many independent power producers, as opposed to other green energy sources like wave or solar energy.

As a result, developers have staked their claims on different waterways across the province to find the best place to make their energy and, ultimately, their money.

"The way the provincial system is structured right now, you need to basically protect yourself by putting a water license down," said Nick Andrews, the vice president of Rutherford Creek Power Limited, a private development company based out of Vancouver.

"In order to have the rights to develop a project, you have to be the first person on the line for a water license," he said. "That's propagated a gold rush mentality."

Rutherford Creek Power Limited is establishing a facility on the Rutherford near Pemberton and has looked at the viability of establishing small hydroelectric projects on about 40-50 other creeks elsewhere.

Andrews is involved in another development company called Cloudworks that has made 8-10 applications for water licenses.

"Very few of the water license applications will be carried through to fruition," said Andrews.

From his experience in trying to establish a project on the Rutherford, Andrews points to the many other factors that must be taken into consideration, like support from the local community, First Nations and recreational users before one of these projects can move forward.

"It's easy to get alarmed (at the numbers)," he said. "But we would never advocate wanting to put projects on every potential creek for which it might be suited."

By submitting water license applications, however, developers can keep their options open and hope they can get approval to proceed with the project.

From Squamish through to the Lillooet Valley there were 66 applications before the water management branch as of Nov. 8, 2001. In just over two months, that number may have risen to 80 applications, said Steve Weatherbe, the media contact with the ministry of sustainable resource management.

This gives some idea of how quickly developers are rushing in to stake out sites.

The Sea to Sky Corridor may be one of the best places in the province to make this green energy because of the mountainous terrain and the high velocities of water in the run-off period.

"Practically every creek and river in the Sea to Sky has an application in place," said Stuart Smith, the chair of leadership and coaching for the Whitewater Kayaking Association of B.C. "This area is also perfect because it has high tension power lines running through it. For example, Rutherford Creek only has a few hundred feet of power line to connect to the Hydro grid. In this gold rush situation everyone is looking for the easiest place to put these power lines in."

But the Rutherford Creek project, like the Miller Creek project before it have been clouded in controversy since it was first proposed in Pemberton.

Both projects did not go through without a fight and Rutherford only has a water license now on the condition that the company solves its dispute with the local paddling community.

Other area residents have been concerned not on a recreational front but more on the aesthetic side of things.

"We'll have a lot more power lines, more roads and more structures in area where right now it is wilderness. The long term effects are mainly optical – it's just not pristine wilderness anymore," said a concerned resident in the area who preferred not to give his name.

In 2000 this resident attended a public hearing in which Pemberton residents were given a forum to air their concerns about the Miller Creek project. He said their concerns were ignored.

"I'm just about at the point where I don't have feelings anymore. Our concerns don't seem to have any impact in Victoria where the decisions are being made," he said. "These developers seem to have more clout than Joe Blow citizen, or at least, so it appears."

In his frustration over the process, he did not attend the public hearing for the Rutherford Creek project because he felt that it would be an exercise in futility.

But now with so many rivers and creeks up for developmental grabs, the concerns may be more far-reaching.

So far, each small hydroelectric project and its effects have been determined on an individual basis, just like the Miller and Rutherford Creek projects.

"The problem with discussing each one of these by itself is that there is not the overall big picture," said Smith. "There are impacts that run across these projects, not just within these projects."

There have been criticisms on many fronts about the process that is currently in place. It would appear as though the government is bogged down and unable to wade through the sheer volume of proposals that are on the table.

"(The water management branch) is looking at streamlining the process because historically there hasn't been a lot of opportunity for them to develop projects," said Goehring.

In the meantime, various stakeholders complain that they are being left out of the process unfairly.

"We do not get timely information on these projects to be able to make an informed decision. There is a gap in the provincial process," said Lyle Leo, the CEO of the Lil'wat Nation.

Smith complains of the same problem.

"The only time we hear about (the projects) is at the very end – the B.C. government won't tell us anything in terms of a lead time," he said.

If all applications that are sitting at the water management branch proceed and become small hydroelectric projects, a wide range of people, not just First Nation's people or recreational users, may feel the ramifications. It may be especially felt in this area which depends on tourism for its livelihood.

"Obviously the concern is that without these applications being considered in an overall land use plan, that various stakeholders will be left out in the long-term. Their futures could be compromised without them ever participating in the process," said Rhodes.

There wasn't as much concern when the government was granting development rights for one of two sites on an individual basis. Now the sheer numbers are making it almost essential that the government establish a uniform policy in this sphere.

"They're just going at this piecemeal and we think they should be looking at the larger view," said Rhodes.

In an effort to move towards this, Whistler has come up with an idea that may create guidelines and structure to the process, at least in the Sea to Sky area.

"We think it should be part of the Sea to Sky LRMP so that certain creeks and rivers will be zoned for this purpose," Rhodes said.

To that end, AWARE outlined their concerns and their proposal in a letter to Whistler mayor and council.

In a meeting on Dec. 3, council voted to uphold AWARE's position and agreed that there was a need to get a master planning process in place to deal with these proposals.

"Whistler council is pretty sensitive overall to the large scale planning analysis. Essentially we've learned that you can't look at different things in isolation," said councillor Ken Melamed. "(These) projects are the current fad of the day in terms of green energy. We can't just allow these projects to go ahead willy-nilly based on the sole assumption that it's good because it's green power."

Recently the water management branch has said that six projects are ready to move ahead to the next stage of the application process and be formally reviewed. There is a push on to get these projects up and running since Hydro announced June 2004 as a target date for some of these projects to begin delivering power.

"When I look at the big picture it's the B.C. government that is causing a lot of the problems. We don't get early enough notification to prevent last minute confrontation. Also, the government has actually mandated that they want to have the resource used to its fullest capacity," said Smith. "They view these rivers as a resource that is going to waste if there is no project on it."

Most acknowledge the need for green power and agree that small hydroelectric projects are essential if B.C. wants to actively pursue an alternative energy program with sustainable resources.

But various groups are calling for a balance between power production needs and the needs and goals of the community. After all, these small hydro projects are on Crown land, which belongs to all people of B.C.

In an effort to create more of a balance the government is currently doing a study, to be completed in March, which will do an inventory of recreational paddling streams. The study is an attempt to systematically identify the streams and rivers that are of highest value to the kayakers.

More vision and planning like this is needed in creating a small hydroelectric policy acceptable to all stakeholders.

"It's a good thing but sometimes it can be too much of a good thing. We can do detriment to future potential by over utilizing a good thing," said Rhodes.