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Powerlines, roads, drilling and avalanches

Rarely is there a dull moment at the Meager Creek geothermal site

Frank Baumann was just the person I needed to meet.

A tallish man whose car was full of hi-tech gadgets, yet still covered in enough dust to qualify him as a tradesman in the process of getting a job done.

Baumann is the technical director on one of the most intriguing developments to come to Canada in a long time, but he’s also the kind of guy who can be interesting for eight straight hours.

On this day Baumann, Craig Aspinall, and I drove to the Meager Creek geothermal site, which sits in the shadow of Devastation Peak and not far from Angel Falls, 70 kilometres west of Pemberton.

Rarely did we turn a bend without Baumann regaling us with the history of the area and how this might affect the geothermal energy project, which has just slipped into high gear.

Exploration on the site started in 1973 with federal funding from the Geological Survey of Canada. In the late 1970s, B.C. Hydro dug three deep holes and was actually able to extract energy. But they were, effectively, digging in the wrong place on the mountain and the site was not considered commercially viable.

In the 1990s MCDC teamed with an investor from San Francisco and higher temperatures were found, but that project ceased when they ran out of money.

Western Geopower acquired the rights to the site in 2001 and have since been raising funds to start drilling wells.

And now, as the safety systems around the site are developed and the second well is completed around the end of January, the wells will be tested for permeability. Results from those tests will then be used in a variety of presentations to government and potential investors.

If the project proceeds as planned then there should be energy being extracted and wired into households around B.C. by 2007.

But as we bumped over the logging roads that often spider-off into the wilderness, Baumann and Aspinall, who is the public policy manager for the project, explained why the area would be so important when it comes to "putting in the power lines."

With autumn working its yellow and red magic on the trees surrounding both sides of the road, Baumann explained that the road would, ideally, be the route for the power lines from the geothermal site to the B.C. Hydro substation in Pemberton.

The conversation would later change to how deep the drilling was going and what might stop the drillers from hitting their mark in time. The purpose of the drilling is to allow the developers to gauge how permeable the rocks are – the more permeable they are the more efficient the mine will be and therefore, the more money there is to be made.

But still, some 50 kilometres from the geothermal site, which is the first of its kind in Canada, power lines dominated conversation – and for good reason because the developers, Western Geopower, know they will have to fight to get the lines where they want them.

And without the lines there is no project. While they might be sitting on top of 250MW of energy, which is enough to power 160,000 homes for a lifetime, they still have to get the energy from the site to wear it can be used.

The most cost-effective route is to run the lines directly from the geothermal site, down the logging road, through Pemberton Meadows and into the B.C. Hydro substation in Pemberton.

Several companies, including B.C. Hydro in the early 1980s and Epcor with the Miller Creek IPP, have contemplated this route before.

But previous proposals were soundly defeated by the residents of Pemberton, who have traditionally been dead against power lines through the valley.

There is an alternative route but the problem with this option is that it passes through lands claimed by two different First Nations bands, the Lil’wat and Xit’olacw.

The alternative route turns off the Lillooet logging road at Railroad Creek, heads north of Pemberton Meadows then back towards Highway 99 at the Birkenhead River. It then follows the river to an interconnection point at Poole Creek, about 18 km north of Pemberton.

Baumann said he expects to consult with the community soon on the details of both plans but in the meantime there are a number of other issues the developers must deal with.

The road to the geothermal site seems almost as ancient as the ground it covers in places, but without it the project could not continue.

To get the drilling rig to the site it cost Western Geopower $1.2 million, but it would have cost 10 times that if the equipment had to be airlifted in.

Baumann said getting fuel to the site was now a priority and this is so important Western Geopower is going to spend $50,000 a month to keep the road open during winter.

Once the mine is functioning the road will become less important but now, it’s needed for food and supplies for the 30 men and women working on the site.

The rig is costing Western Geopower about $50,000 a day, regardless of whether it operates or not, so maintaining good access to the site is also important should anything go wrong with the rig.

Closer to the site, the road has recently been moved to accommodate the local mountain goat population, but also to better protect any traffic from avalanches.

The site itself is unique because of what the company is drilling for and the temperatures they’re dealing with, which are expected top 250 degrees Celsius.

On the surface the drilling rig looks like a normal oil rig drilling on a small block of land 120 metres by 140 metres. But this operation is anything but normal because they’re drilling into heated rock, which will affect the equipment: one drill bit costs $23,000 and lasts only 50 or 60 hours.

To get to the site there is a large exposed area around Capricorn Creek and Baumann explained that occasionally, massive mudslides ooze through the area and could potentially shut the road for weeks.

Then there’s the danger from avalanches and wildlife. On the day we were there, the camp was on the lookout for a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs.

To combat the danger from avalanches Baumann is in the process of finding a qualified expert to advise on how to stop slides from covering the work site and/or any parts of the road.

"Our whole theory is avalanche avoidance," said Baumann.