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Government approach to IPPs has created as much tension as power

When you woke up this morning it was probably still dark, so the first thing you likely did was turn on a light, thus beginning the day’s consumption of energy.

When you woke up this morning it was probably still dark, so the first thing you likely did was turn on a light, thus beginning the day’s consumption of energy.

Actually, most of us had some heat on all night, in addition to clocks and other appliances that are plugged in, so we are consuming energy 24 hours a day. And where that energy comes from is becoming just as much of an issue as how much we consume.

Through the blessings of geography and climate, B.C. is fortunate to be able to generate most of its power from hydro-electric sources. Hydro-electricity is cleaner than power generated by coal-fired plants, less scary than nuclear power and more dependable – in our climate – than solar or wind power. But how much we need is always a hot topic. B.C. Hydro’s long-range forecasts for energy demand fluctuate as the economy and the population rise and fall. About 13 years ago B.C. Hydro said the capacity of two of the three transmission lines that run through Whistler would have to be increased to meet the growing demand for energy from the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. For various reasons, including slower than expected growth and new sources of energy, the transmission line upgrade never happened.

In recent years, however, B.C.’s population and economy have again started to grow, and despite stated concerns for the environment British Columbians continue to use more electricity, on average, than other Canadians. B.C. Hydro’s current forecast is for energy demands to increase by 1.7 per cent annually for the next decade. So where do we get more energy?

B.C. Hydro has committed to meet at least 10 per cent of new electricity demand through "green" energy to 2010. That could mean wind power, tidal power, solar power or 10,000 gerbils running in little rodent wheels, but in most cases it means run-of-river projects by private sector developers.

The alternative, and it still may come to this at some point, is another major dam on a northern river that floods a valley and destroys natural habitat, ecosystems, wildlife and political careers. That’s a decision that no one wants to make. It would be much more controversial than building dams in the 1950s and ’60s was, but in the end, with most energy consumers in southern B.C. and very few people who have ever seen northern B.C., it could happen.

In the meantime, however, the provincial government and its Crown corporation B.C. Hydro have invited the private sector to help meet B.C.’s energy needs through independent power projects, or IPPs. In most cases IPPs have been run-of-river projects, like the one that has existed in the Soo Valley for more than a decade and the more controversial Miller Creek, Rutherford Creek and the proposed Ashlu projects.

Most IPPs have a capacity of less than 50 megawatts. Individually they are small potatoes in terms of B.C. Hydro’s overall generating capacity, and as each requires individual nurturing, approvals and management they are more suited to the private sector than a Crown corporation.

But collectively IPPs are helping B.C. Hydro meet the province’s energy demands – and, critics say, adding surplus energy that B.C. Hydro can export, thus bringing in more revenue for the province.

Individually, some projects have been controversial, as environmental and aesthetic values have clashed with IPP producers’ plans. But the real controversy behind IPPs is that the provincial government and B.C. Hydro have created a modern version of gold fever by effectively declaring all creeks and rivers fair game. Rather than co-ordinate or limit the number of run-of-river projects in a region, the province and the Crown corporation have sat back and let IPP proponents stake claims on any stream running down a mountain.

The Sea to Sky corridor is particularly attractive because of the three transmission lines that run through the corridor and the relatively easy access to many of the creeks and rivers. As a result there are approximately 60 applications for IPP projects in the region.

Interestingly, valleys that are less accessible, and which don’t have B.C. Hydro transmission lines running through them, are less desirable from an IPP perspective, because of the cost of reaching them and of bringing the power to market. This economic barrier, some would argue, means that the majority of B.C.’s creeks and rivers will never be subject to IPP projects. While this may be true, it ignores the free-for-all that has taken place in areas like the Sea to Sky corridor.

What the unregulated approach has done is put the onus on local governments and communities to deal with IPPs one at a time. The result is many IPPs have generated as much tension and anger as power.

There has been little indication from Victoria or B.C. Hydro how many IPPs will be required. Instead Hydro makes periodic calls for IPP proposals and then decides which ones look most promising. This is an abdication of responsibility. IPPs are part of the answer to B.C.’s energy demands, but the province and its Crown corporation owe the people of B.C. an explanation of how big a part they play. A clearer picture of how many creeks and rivers will be needed to meet forecasted energy demands is due.