August 01, 2013 Features & Images » Feature Story

A river runs through it 

Independent hydropower energizes debate in the Sea to Sky

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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."

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