The John Hart Power Renewal Project: Opportunity Lost or Gained?

Submitted to BC Hydro, February 23, 2012


  1. The John Hart power renewal project

  2. Historical background

  3. Greening the future

  4. An alternate plan

  5. Fishery considerations

  6. Seismic survival

  7. Conclusions

The Renewal Project

BC Hydro's John Hart Power Station and dam are key elements of the Campbell River watershed system. In continuous use since 1947, the generation station is worn from 65 years of operation. It's initial output capacity of 126 MW is now rated at 118 MW and declining. Both the station and its supply penstocks are considered unsafe to seismic risk. Work has been done on the dam, and replacements for generators and penstocks have been under study for some time.

At a community information event held in Campbell River on February 16, 2012, BC Hydro unveiled its plans to renew the John Hart Power Station along the conceptual lines of the original design. Not all components of the station will be replaced: the prime concerns are the powerhouse and pipelines, which are most deteriorated. A new three-unit powerhouse will be built adjacent to the existing powerhouse to generate 138 MW, never more than this, and rarely much less. The penstocks will be replaced, with cosmetic changes made to the intake and outflow of water. Park lands will be swapped here and replaced there, and the project completion will be capped by the emplacement of nice signs wherever needed. If the future is like the past, this simple replacement would make sense. But it isn't, and it doesn't. Yet it appears this plan is headed to the BC Hydro Board of Directors for approval this month. By the end of February 2012, the decision may be underway to rebuild this aging generator station with one almost identical that built 65 years ago. That would be a tragedy of lost opportunity.

Historical background

The headwaters of the Campbell River arise on the many peaks surrounding Buttle Lake, in the mountainous heart of Vancouver Island. Over the years 1942 to 1958, the Campbell River watershed was transformed into what is by far the largest system for the storage and generation of hydroelectricity on the Island. A complete description of system including history, photographs and maps can be found here:

Maps of the locations below may be found in Figures 1 & 5 of the BC Hydro document “John Hart Generating Station Replacement Project – Project Description” (April 2011).

The storage and generation facilities of this system form into three components:

The combined generating capacity of the three power stations is about 240 MW, with a dependable capacity of about 225 MW.

For decades, the biggest consumers of electricity on Vancouver Island were the paper mills, which typically ran 24 hours a day. Other industrial consumers such as lumber mills often ran several shifts per day. Thus, for both paper and lumber mills, the demand for electricity was fairly constant. Today, both types of industry have all but vanished on Vancouver Island. Electrical demand increasingly follows the diurnal cycle of home and business. Additionally, seasonal variations in electrical demand grow stronger as the heating of buildings shifts from fossil to sustainable energy. In our coastal climate, heat pumps can operate at efficiencies exceeding 300%, which makes the change from fossil heat to pumped heat very compelling indeed. But it does place very different requirements on our electrical supply. Supply side management of the resource will be essential for this transition to be successful. We can't confine the heating of our homes to times of minimum electrical demand. Consumer acceptance of green power is totally dependent on its being available when needed.

Greening the Future

We are living at a defining moment in human history. As this is being written, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide stands at 393.09 parts per million – up almost 5 ppm in the last two years! Atmospheric CO2 has risen about 40% since the start of the Industrial Revolution. The CO2 concentration stands at a level never before experienced by humans or our pre-hominid ancestors. It probably stands at the highest level since 40 million years ago. The Keeling curve, the graph which plots the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere over time, continues to steepen. While the case to cut our reliance on fossil fuels becomes more compelling, our actual use of them continues to accelerate, not decrease.

Today, we are making the first modern steps towards sustainable green energy from wind, photovoltaic, ocean and geothermal sources. These are often often called “renewables”, although there is nothing we can do, or need do, to renew them. They are sustained by solar radiation (powering photovoltaics, rainfall, wind, waves), the moon's orbital motion (tidal) and the Earth's internal heat (from radioactivity). Hence “sustainable” is a more apt term. However, all these sources except geothermal are intermittent: the wind doesn't always blow, the sun doesn't always illuminate. Let's keep in mind also the fact that the world's fastest-flowing tidal waters are found just a few kilometers away from Campbell River, in the channels among the Discovery Islands. They can provide predictable power in perpetuity, but in cycles that peak and wane every six hours.

Sustainable energies are abundant. In desert climates, direct solar energy capture is practical, and increasingly economically attractive. But in our cloudy latitudes, solar energy is most accessible in the form it is manifest, namely as falling water (hydro and microhydro) and wind. Globally, wind energy alone is potentially capable of providing 200 times more than the current total energy needs of all humankind.

In the spring of 2013, the Cape Scott Wind Farm north of Holberg will go online to BC Hydro, supplying up to 99 MW of electrical energy into the grid. The 99 MW is an optimal figure: typically, wind generators operate at 20 to 40% of nameplate capacity, so 20 to 40 MW will be more realistic. And on calm days, the output from wind will be close to zero.

Can we marry the capacities of wind and water to supply-manage our electrical system? Water in reservoirs capable of being drawn down when required represents our only hope for maximizing our use of wind and other interruptable supplies. Elevated water can store energy at 100% efficiency on any scale and within any time constraints as required. It is the only efficient way we can even imagine to achieve this.

Wind farms are surely part of our future. Already, at the start of 2012, Canada has over 5265 MW of installed wind capacity. The Canadian Wind Energy Association is calling this same amount to be online in BC alone by 2025. If we were to develop our wind resources on Vancouver Island to the density they are already developed in Denmark, the island by itself could produce 5000 MW of wind energy! Globally, the production of wind energy is rising at a rate of 21% per year. For comparison, the peak load for electrical consumption on Vancouver Island is around 1700 MW. But of course, if we are serious about replacing the 80% of our total energy use that derives from fossil sources with sustainable energy, we will need that 5000 MW for Vancouver Island. For a start, it can heat all our buildings and power most of our transportation (except flight),.

Since the hope of an abundant energy future rests on our ability to marry wind and water in sustainable power generation, why has this need not been factored into the plan for John Hart Power Station renewal? What is needed from our legacy hydro generation facilities is not more total output, it is more flexibility: the ability to produce power when wind and tides are slack, and when run-of-river sources are out of season. As proposed, the John Hart renewal project does nothing to address that need.

At this point it seems almost shocking that we seem to have forgotten that the function of reservoirs is to reserve the gravitational energy of elevated water until needed as electricity.

Perhaps we have arrived at this anomalous position because Bill 17, the Clean Energy Act of 2010, places all the emphasis on management of demand, and so little emphasis on management of supply. But this is wholly unrealistic if we are to transition our fossil energy use over to sustainables. We cannot withhold electricity for heating homes or for transportation just because the wind does not blow. We must have the reserve hydroelectric capacity in to carry us through those times. And that is exactly what reservoirs allow us to do.

An Alternate Plan

A renewal of the John Hart generation station is possible that does manage supply, and does mesh with sustainable (but intermittent) sources. We can't significantly increase the total energy produced in the Campbell River Hydro system, except to the modest degree permitted by harvesting the water wasted as runoff in flood conditions, and by locating the generator tailraces closer to sea level. But we can increase the flexibility of supply. This is exactly what a reservoir is supposed to do, reserve the gravitational potential energy of water until needed to produce electricity. And, there already is huge reservoir capacity already built into the Campbell River system. Here, reserve power can be accessed without building even a single new dam, and without creating a new reservoir. We can use what we already have. Actually, the topography of the system makes it easy do do so.

On page 9 of the BC Hydro booklet “Project Description for JHT Project” dated April 2011, a comparison is made of the three reservoirs in the watershed feeding the John Hart station. The Buttle/Upper Campbell reservoir, the Lower Campbell/McIvor reservoir, and John Hart Lake are likened respectively to “a bathtub, a bucket, and a tea cup”. Given this analogy, does it make sense to draw the water supply from the tea cup, which must be constantly refilled? The mean water retention times in the three reservoirs are 3.9 months, 1.1 month and 1.5 days respectively. Their respective storage capacities are 823, 321 and 3.3 (all in million cubic metres).

From the easternmost point of McIvor Lake to the present John Hart station is about 5.5 km; from the Lake to the junction of the Quinsam and Campbell Rivers about 6 km. If a penstock was built from McIvor Lake along the route of Argonaut and Quinsam Roads to the confluence, it would descend at a uniform gradient around 2.5% over gravelled terrain in less than 7 km. The vertical descent from McIvor to almost sea level would be 175 meters, the operating head for a new power station.

A new generating station could be built at or near the confluence of the rivers. Accepting all the watershed outflow, it could average something close to 200 MW, a little more than the combined output of the Ladore and proposed Hart stations, because it would have a slightly greater vertical descent that those two combined. Suppose then it was actually fitted to provide twice (for example) that average power, 400 MW, and operated about half the time. The overall water use would be improved, as there would be no waste of power in flood conditions, and the capacity to match something like 400 MW of intermittent power from wind is achieved.

For fisheries reasons which are given below, it is unrealistic to replace the old power station completely. As a suggestion, the Ladore and Hart generators could operate at one-quarter of their current capacity, with the new power station averaging around 160 MW, but varying to meet demand.

Because of the longer and wider penstocks, and the requirement for more generators, the material costs for an Argonaut-Quinsam route would be greater than in the original proposal. But the actual labour costs might be considerably less.

The logistics of the original redevelopment proposal are challenging and costly. They require working around operating penstocks, the switchyard, transmission lines and towers, surge towers and buildings, while replacing or moving all of them, without disrupting power generation or river flow. There are fiber optic lines through the construction site, and a natural gas main. The city of Campbell River's drinking water supply must not be disrupted. The proposal requires adding an automatic replacement flow of up to 80 meters per second around the powerhouse. It requires changes to the Hart Dam, which however will not be replaced. Instead, a hole will be bored through the concrete section of the existing spillway. All of this work carries high safety risk, and will be extremely costly in labour. The risk of catastrophic rupture of the old penstocks during construction is itself a threat. The combined disturbance and danger to the human population of the area from these threats is significant.

Constructing new penstocks on the Argonaut-Quinsam route to a new generating station downstream largely circumvents all these problems. For one thing, the penstocks can be laid into abundant gravel, rather than being bored through rock as in the original proposal. Switchover and commissioning of a new powerhouse is vastly simplified. Significantly, this route inherently adds a bypass facility that the existing Hart powerhouse lacks, solving that problem and its inherent threats to the fishery. The need for a bypass was one of the key drivers of the original renewal project.

Fishery Considerations

Historically, the Campbell River was one of the most productive rivers for salmonids on Vancouver Island, even though its spawning grounds are confined to the few kilometers below Elk Falls. All five salmon species, plus steelhead and cutthroat trout are present. I cannot speak as to the effects that Hydro development has had on the fishery. Currently, though, the risk of damage to fish resources is recognized, and many human and other resources are dedicated to mitigating those threats.

What makes a great salmon river? Uniformity of volume of flow is paramount. In normal periods of hydro operation, there is a uniform flow of around 130 cubic meters per second in the lower river. In times of drought, this can drop to the mandated minimum of 34 cubic meters per second for the fishery. In times of flood, the flow rate could be five or six times the minimum. Such fluctuations can have negative consequences for salmon fry or smolts.

The most productive salmon river in the world is the Adams River in the interior of British Columbia. In the interior plateau, extreme precipitation events are rare, and the presence of Adams Lake upstream moderates the river flow to a high degree of constancy. For 11 km along the river from Adams Lake to Shuswap Lake, some ten million sockeye salmon spawn in peak years. That number is approximately equal to the total number of Atlantic salmon that entered all the rivers emptying into the entire North Atlantic at the peak of that now decimated fishery. So the Adams river is special indeed, thanks to the constancy of river flow over its gravel beds.

It is possible to maintain a sufficient and constant flow in a large portion of the Campbell River, and all of the lower Quinsam River, and still have a highly variable hydro production rate. But to do this requires physical separation of the two hydro streams.

Currently, a water flow below the John Hart tailrace is maintained at a minimum of 34 cubic meters per second for the fishery; of this about 4 cubic meters per second goes through Elk Falls Canyon. This leaves 30 meters per second of flow to the old (existing) power station, producing about 30 MW. This could be set as the constant production from that powerhouse. In that case, only one or two of its current six generators would need eventual replacement. The balance of power averaging around 160 MW could then be generated on the Argonaut-Quinsam pathway. As noted above, it should be capable of several times that capacity to meet peak demand for power. No hydroelectric production would be wasted by overflows in times of extreme weather.

The Quinsam River fishery would be unaffected. The lowest portion of the Campbell River near tidewater would experience widely varying flows, but nothing that would stop migrating salmon from reaching spawning grounds upstream.

With this constant volume of flow in the main spawning grounds of the Campbell River, the fishery could significantly benefit.

Seismic Survival

We can't be sure that the John Hart Dam and associated installations will survive a major earthquake. Indeed, they might not have survived the 1946 Buttle Lake earthquake of magnitude 7.4 had it been operational at that time. It is a near-certainty that a magnitude 9 earthquake will hit Vancouver Island again someday; the last one of that strength was on January 26, 1700. Some estimates place a 30% probability of another “big one” happening within this generation.

The earthen John Hart Dam, with its 30 meter height and 250 meter length, poses a failure threat to all that lies downstream from it. An alternative water route from McIvor Lake to tidewater is insurance against any damage (seismic or otherwise) that might occur to the Hart dam. It would also allow the water level behind that dam to be lowered anytime as a precautionary measure. As presently operated, the drawdown of the reservoir level rarely exceeds 1.2 meters.

By routing a substantial flow directly from McIvor Lake to close to sea level, the danger of dam failure can be reduced. The natural gravel embankment surrounding McIvor Lake is considerably thicker and stronger than the John Hart Dam. The Ladore dam, which is a concrete structure sitting in a narrow rock channel, is probably quite secure.


A pivotal decision is about to be made that will define the energy path of Vancouver Island and British Columbia for a very long time. If we envision a future where all our energy is green and sustainable, with green energy replacing fossil energy in many applications, the proposal as presented by BC Hydro simply will not get us there. Emphasis needs to be given to supply management, with flexibility of hydro reserve power to synergize with the coming wave of sustainable power from intermittent sources such as wind.

It is to be hoped that due consideration be given to possible alternatives to that plan. The one presented here suggests routing a substantial fraction of the Campbell River flow directly from McIvor Lake to a point near sea level. This proposal is simpler in concept and construction, offers reliability and flexibility of output, higher efficiency, lessened seismic risk, and advantages for the fishery.

Safety, reliability and environmental improvements were the three stated goals of this renewal project from the outset. All can be better achieved by routing the new facility away from the old. Let us not forfeit this very special opportunity to achieve these goals while building a better energy future for British Columbians.

Chris Aikman

Postscript Added March 13, 2013:

On this day it was announced that BC Hydro’s board of directors has approved the $1.35-billion replacement of the 65-year-old John Hart generating station on the Campbell River as proposed:

The BC Hydro report issued September 2011 entitled “John Hart Generating Station Replacement Project: Scope for Environmental Assessment” contains five alternatives to the proposed plan than involve decommissioning the John Hart facility altogether. It becomes apparent reading these alternatives that the real fear is not merely the danger of seismic failure of the penstocks and power station, but of the John Hart Dam itself. In other words, the inundation of the City of Campbell River from failure of the John Hart dam when a major earthquake occurs on Vancouver Island is a very real and present danger.

Perhaps the solution that should be considered is to physically separate the fishery and hydro functions altogether. In other words, the Campbell River watercourse would be returned to its original state below the (relatively safe) Ladore Dam, while the hydro generation would take place close to tidewater on penstock feed from McIvor Lake, as described in the above proposal.