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Run-of-river projects in limbo following BCUC decision

Lekstrom says province remains committed to ‘clean and renewable energy’

Run-of-river power projects are in limbo after the B.C. Utilities Commission rejected the province's long-term power acquisition plan, according to a local proponent.

"What they've effectively done is kneecapped the Clean Power Call," said Nigel Protter, who himself is helping plan a project for the Ryan River in Pemberton.

"I'm not sure what the number is, but I know it's in the billions of investments for these wind farms and these power projects that are now, I won't say dead, but they're kind of in limbo. All of the projects, including the Ryan, of course."

In a 236-page decision issued July 27 the utilities commission said the provincial government's 2008 Long Term Acquisition Plan, which sought to phase out gas-fired electricity generation and replace it with electricity from sources such as run-of-river, is not in the public interest where energy and self-sufficiency are concerned.

The acquisition plan is a 10-year plan that was filed with the commission, a regulatory agency that has to determine whether the plan is in the public interest under section 44.1 (6) of the Utilities Commission Act.

The plan details the expenditures on resources and measures that B.C. Hydro plans to take in order to meet its electricity needs. The Clean Power Call, issued in June 2008, is a part of the plan that seeks to develop 5,000 gigawatt hours of clean or renewable energy per year.

B.C. Hydro received 68 proposals from 43 registered proponents. Several First Nations have partnered with run-of-river proponents. Announcements regarding the first contracts were expected in the next month.

Under the acquisition plan, the provincial government sought to downgrade B.C.'s dependence on the Burrard Generating Station, a natural gas-fuelled power generator. The government wanted to cap its use of the Burrard station at 3,000 GWh/year, less than half of its full capacity.

Additional capacity was expected to come from privately developed wind, hydro, run-of-river and biomass generation. These are generally seen as cleaner sources of electricity than natural gas because they produce fewer emissions.

But the commission said that Burrard should be generating up to 5,000 GWh/year. It thus aligned itself somewhat with a submission by B.C. Hydro's employee union, which asked that Burrard be allowed to generate up to 6,000 GWh/year.

Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom said in an interview Friday that the province remains committed to a "clean and renewable energy industry" in British Columbia and that it won't fire up the Burrard station in the way the commission has asked it to.

"That is just not going to happen," Lekstrom said. "We are going to replace the generation of that facility with cleaner, renewable energy.

"We take their findings very seriously. If they are completely at odds with the government direction, then we have to determine a course of action on what we will do and we're doing that and we will have that out very soon."

Meanwhile Protter said the environmental assessments that precede run-of-river projects can still proceed independently but the commission's decision will "drastically change" the province's plans for building new sources of electricity.

"Everyone's appalled by this who understands the issue deeply," he said. "The BCUC has only acted on price, they're assuming that the people of B.C. simply want the lowest cost power, that's what they're assuming.

"We do want low-cost power, but we also want low-cost sustainable electricity, so they have not taken that into account in the ruling."

B.C. Citizens for Public Power, a non-profit organization that wants to see B.C.'s electricity system run publicly, hailed the BCUC decision, saying that it represents a "significant challenge" to the government's energy plan.

"My hope is that they're going to take these recommendations seriously," said executive director Melissa Davis. "The government has dismissed or trivialized so many campaigns against private power... what are they going to do now that their own regulatory body is saying the same thing?"

Asked whether she has concerns that raising the cap on the Burrard Generating Station could increase greenhouse gas emissions, she said that's "not really the most accurate reading" of the commission's ruling. She also suggested that Burrard hasn't quite been used up to its capacity.

"The idea with Burrard Thermal is this is capacity that exists as a backup," she said. "The argument was made that the government's assessment that we're in this energy crisis has been grossly exaggerated.

"There's no plan to fire up Burrard Thermal beyond what any emergency backup uses will be."