Site C and the Future of Energy in British Columbia
by Chris Aikman
Note: This is a discussion of a position paper posted at:
The proposed Site C project on the Peace River is all about providing secure capacity in British Columbia's sustainable energy supply. For a transition to a blend of sustainable sources from solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, wind, run-of-river and tidal sources, we face the severe problem that all of these are intermittent. The development of Site C on the Peace would create three sequential reservoirs to offer an as-needed supply of power, manageable on all time scales from minutes to months. Only the Columbia River system, which already consists of a comparable sequence of reservoirs, offers this degree of freedom to top up intermittent sources with hydro power. If we truly envision a future in which all of our energy comes from sustainable sources, Site C is an essential element to that goal. Without a reliable backup supply, the green energy revolution will be stillborn. It's really that simple.
So the position recently taken by the BC Sustainable Energy Association's calling for the BC government to postpone a final decision on the Site C project comes as a complete shock and a bitter disappointment. It seems startling that the BCSEA is adopting a position that asks for a delay in the development of sustainable energy!?
First, let's take an overview of the energy situation we are facing.:
Canada only gets 17% of its primary energy supply from sustainable sources at present. http://graphicartsmag.com/articles/2013/04/green-energy-in-canada/
British Columbia gets a higher percentage of primary energy from sustainables than the national average, because 93% of our electricity comes from hydro. A big exception occurs on Vancouver Island, where one third of the Island's electricity comes from Capital Energy's gas-fired generator at Campbell River.
Regardless of the exact figures for BC, we still get roughly 4/5th of our total energy needs from fossil sources. That is the real problem that we must address if we want to reduce carbon emissions.
To stop the rise of atmospheric CO2, we need to increase the amount of sustainable energy to at least 80% of our total supply; some would say 100%. That is we need something like a fourfold increase in sustainable energy to displace fossil power, at current economic levels.
BC Hydro has rarely if ever acknowledged a role to displace fossil power.
BCSEA has rarely if ever put numbers to the magnitude of the challenge of supply to displace fossil power.
Any statement that we don't need additional electrical power is clearly a falsehood. Sustainably generated electricity is the only significant choice we have to replace fossil energy.
Since electricity from wind and sun is intermittent, we clearly need to increase discretionary (reserve) hydro capacity in order to offset the interruptibility of wind and solar power.
We cannot accurately forecast which mix of photovoltaic, wind, run-of-river, etc will prove optimal in the coming decades. For example, few could have accurately predicted the astounding drop in the cost of photovoltaic cells. But given that this has happened, it is driving a dramatic rise in photovoltaic electricity at this time.
So it's becoming a fair bet that solar photovoltaic electricity is poised to dominate the sustainability revolution. Its advantages are that it is cheap, easily installed & integrated, and scalable in application from single households to vast arrays powering a whole state or jurisdiction.
Theoretically the USA could meet all its electrical needs in daylight hours from photovoltaic. Many regions of Canada could meet their needs from photovoltaic.
The salient question is: how far can solar photovoltaic generation grow before hitting a limit? An obvious limit is set by the fact that the sun doesn't shine at night.
What happens when the sun goes down? The glib answer, that we’ll get it from other places were the sun is shining, is nonsense for us on the west coast of North America. When the sun goes down here, it has set over all the Americas. We won’t get photovoltaic from the Pacific Ocean nor from Japan. We can’t rely on wind to blow every evening (when it usually calms down, and when demand for electricity peaks) to fill the gap. So the solar photovoltaic revolution will be stopped dead in its tracks unless we build an always-available backup supply.
The idea that this backup will come from super-batteries is a myth, because chemistry has its limits. The best source of chemical energy is hydrocarbons, which we're trying to get away from. Batteries can supply single homes and small operations, but simply can’t be scaled in an environmentally responsible and economically viable way to supply whole cities.
The gravitational energy of water at elevation, that is hydro, is and always will be the only safe, natural and convenient way to store vast amounts of energy for use when needed.
Reservoir-to-reservoir hydro generation is the natural solution to intermittency problems. It allows power can be generated as needed, without causing severe downstream effects.
The three Peace Dams (Bennett, Peace Canyon, and Site C) can be major contributors to the nighttime supply, if properly engineered to maximize their capacity.
The Columbia River reservoirs can also fulfil this function. Additional capacity being installed at the Mica and Revelstoke dams will provide some of this.
An alternative or additional step would be to nationalize back the Nechako reservoir, which could provide1.6 GW power during the hours of darkness, within the allotted water rights. The second penstock tunnel to reach this capacity is already built, but sits unused.
The argument that we already have sufficient capacity is not true. BC Hydro's reserve capacity is typically around 5%, or 3 GW. For 100% sustainable energy, we will need many times more than this. Hopefully, geothermal generation could and will fulfil a constant base load component.
The only other option to deal with intermittency is to build 1 MW of gas-fired generation for every 1 MW of intermittent generation. If we choose that route, we are clearly abandoning any hope of carbon-free energy. The result of this choice is certain: catastrophic climate change will ensue.
We have to remember what made fossil power so wonderful in the first place:
It's easily transportable
It's there whenever you need it.
Now consider hydroelectric power:
It's not energy-dense, but the supply is vast
Even easier to transport than fuel, because it travel over wires
It's almost carbon emissions-free, and generally environmentally neutral
If it's always available when you need it, and cheap enough, it will naturally displace fossil energy on its merits.
The following comments relate to the BCSEA's recent webinar, and more specifically, to the points raised in BCSEA's position paper as posted at http://www.bcsea.org/site-c-there-better-way
and at http://www.bcsea.org/sites/bcsea.org/files/bcsea_site_c_position_-_final-3dec14.pdf
The numbering refers to the sections as given in the pdf document.
Section I. B. Reasons:
“However, there are significant reasons for the government not to approve Site C”. But all the reasons as given are either erroneous or incomplete, as detailed in these points:
“BC Hydro’s evaluation of Site C and alternative options is out of date and should not be relied on” is a misleading statement. It is true that other options for sustainable energy have evolved rapidly (especially solar photovoltaic), but PV is not an alternative because it is not a stand-alone solution. In fact the spectacular rise of PV puts increased urgency of the need for nighttime power generation that Site C could supply.
Site C has been under consideration since 1980, and actively so since 2007. It would arguably be the most intensely studied project ever undertaken in BC.
“Energy efficiency and conservation has great potential to reduce the need for additional generation.” This seems to imply that we don't need additional electrical generation. How then do we replace fossil energy?
“In addition, BC Hydro needs to update the 20-year load forecast, given the large uncertainties about BC Hydro’s future electricity loads.” This repeats the myth that we might need less electrical energy.
“BC Hydro should update the IRP based on all this new information”. BC Hydro's Integrated Resource Plan was completed and presented on November 15, 2013. It was accepted by the government on November 25, 2013. Why would you expect a different outcome now? The IRP took 3-5 years to prepare; the government amended the Clean Energy Act twice when it became apparent that the legally required IRP completion dates would not be met. Are you seriously advocating another such period of delay in implementing clean energy? Frankly, citizens of this planet don't have that much time to waste, as the current climate talks in Lima clearly indicate.
The Integrated Resource Plan makes no real consideration of displacing fossil energy – which is our most urgent task! BC Hydro needs to plan ahead of the market, and beyond provincial borders. It has clearly not done this yet. In that sense, a new IRP is needed. But that isn't an excuse to delay action; it's quite the opposite.
“Also, the potential benefits of major technological developments like battery storage should be considered”. We've been developing batteries for centuries. The limits of chemistry and chemical energy storage should be pretty clear by now. There will be progress in battery technology, but it won't be spectacular.
“Site C is a gigantic mega-project.” Is there something wrong with that? Isn't it precisely the megaproject that makes the smaller projects viable? It seems obvious our energy future requires a mix of large and small facilities: the large enable the small to happen, wherever they are needed.
“It would create an immediate oversupply of electricity”. Once again the myth of too much electricity is repeated. Cheap electricity is the best plan for the market is to displace fossil energy.
“it would be financially imprudent for the government to approve Site C based only on BC Hydro’s own in-house cost estimate”. Again, this is the most-studied project in BC's history. Today's price is $8.5 billion. Compare this with the Campbell River hydro system pricetag: it was $1 billion in 2012, now $1.7 billion, with no increase in energy production nor capacity.
“BCSEA recognizes that Treaty 8 and other First Nations have rights that would need to be addressed and appropriately accommodated. Should this not be achieved, Site C should not proceed.” First nations rights are absolutely important. They must be suitably consulted and accommodated. But we would not grant an absolute veto to any citizen group, aboriginal or otherwise.
II. A. Sustainable energy criteria to assess Site C and alternatives:
Pitting wind, solar and geothermal against Site C is misleading and counterproductive. They are not exclusive one of the other. All have their place, and their implementation is complimentary. The manageability of Site C's generation capacity is what makes the others viable in the first place.
II.C. Cost effectiveness:
Costs of Site C: the cost has been re-assessed as $8.5 billion. So this question has been answered.
It is impossible to make the case that demand-side management is superior to supply-side management. The big advantage that fossil energy has enjoyed is that it's there when you need it. Once electricity is always there when you need it, its other advantages (cost, ease of transmission, scalability, environmentally cleanliness) will allow it to displace fossil power.
Demand-side management is simply not an issue when you have over two years supply of water behind the W.A.C. Bennett dam. Doesn't it make more sense to use this relatively unique advantage we have in BC? We can deliver electrical power anytime, at a fixed rate. Other jurisdictions can't. This is a huge advantage we should be using to draw investment into our province. Why aren't doing this?
Demand-side management is the reality faced by jurisdictions without a backup power generation capacity. To put it very bluntly, demand-side management is for losers.
“The most cost effective wind resource is assessed to be in the Peace River region”. Site C will expedite the growth of wind power in this region. Both can share the same transmission infrastructure. When the wind blows, the water turbine slows, and vice versa.
Because some of the best wind sites are on aboriginal land, this allows an incentive whereby Site C development can economically benefit first nations.
The statement “The reasons for the decline in the cost of solar power are similar to those for wind power: technological improvements and development of the industry” is a bit of a stretch. Wind power is large and mechanical, while PV power is based on cheap raw materials and spectacular developments in thin-film technology.
Again, you place photovoltaic power in opposition to Site C. Nothing could be more misleading. The cheaper PV power gets, the more we need Site C to complement it. That's the reality.
Geothermal electrical generation:
It's strange to call this a mature technology when it's still so rare. However, it is certainly viable, and can play the role that nuclear generation plays elsewhere: a constant base output. It's drawback is just the opposite of wind & solar, by being invariable. Only reservoir-to-reservoir hydro generation provides what the market requires: power when you need it.
D. Energy system benefits – capacity:
“Energy storage is a rapidly advancing field of research” suggests that some magic of chemistry or physics will somehow emerge to solve intermittency of supply. That simply won't happen. The truth is there is only one method of energy storage that is 100% efficient and totally scalable: water at elevation. The technology we already have is the best there ever will be. We need to expand stored capacity if we are to make progress in sustainable use of energy.
“BCSEA opposes the use of gas fired generation to meet capacity needs.” That's a fine statement, but you're making gas-fired generation inevitable if you oppose the only alternative to it.
E. Energy system benefits – firming intermittent energy:
“BC Hydro estimates that it can currently integrate 3,000 MW of wind capacity onto its system”. BC Hydro is saying in effect they will limit wind generation to 5% of the electrical supply. Compare that with what Denmark and Germany are already doing with wind, and it looks rather pathetic. That's why Site C is needed! We can easily surpass the wind limits faced by Denmark and Germany, given our ability to store power in reservoirs.
So all future capacity should keep an eye on the possibility of a much larger wind (and solar) component eventually being present.
F. Economic benefits from employment:
With the storage capacity of Site C, a huge number of small intermittent-source projects become viable. First nations have already become leaders in run-of-river and wind power projects. Presumably they will continue to be huge beneficiaries in the future.
“the case for distributed, rather than concentrated development”. Again, it will be the assurance of supply from Site C which will enable the development of distributed power generation throughout BC.
G. Environmental effects – GHG and climate change:
This section misleadingly implies that methane production from the decay of vegetation will be caused by flooding. Actually, it will occur with or without flooding, with or without Site C.
H. Environmental effects – other effects, including agricultural land:
As the pictures of the Peace Valley that were shown in the webinar presentation attest, very little of the valley land is presently under cultivation - and what is cultivated is mostly for animal fodder.
It's one thing to argue against flooding valleys when the surrounding land is entirely rock and mountaintop. That condition does not apply east of the Rockies. There the surrounding land is flat and fertile, almost as fertile as the valley bottoms. What limits the agricultural productivity is the extreme temperatures of the seasons. Temperature extremes are mitigated by large bodies of water, such as the Site C reservoir would provide. It could be the case that Site C would actually enhance the agricultural productivity of the Peace region by moderating temperatures.
This section fails to acknowledge that the natural flow of the Peace River has already been disrupted by the two existing power dams. With a third dam and three reservoirs, there is far more freedom to operate reservoir-to-reservoir release to produce more desirable downstream effects. See for example: http://www.timescolonist.com/opinion/op-ed/comment-toward-a-more-responsible-energy-future-1.775366
If we take the figure given in Appendix I for solar photovoltaic energy produced in 2014 in Germany, and if BC adapted the same area density of photovoltaic generation that Germany already (in this early stage) has achieved, we would have 100,000 Gwh of energy annually from this source alone. British Columbians presently use about 57,000 Gwh of electricity per year. There is zero doubt we have the capacity to replace fossil energy with solar plus hydro. Isn't that what we're trying to do? Site C will bring that goal closer!
It has often been stated (and I have heard this in BCSEA circles) that in order to address the real and present dangers of climate change from CO2, that we need to react in much the same way as did the Allies at the outbreak of World War II. That is, we need to mobilize all our efforts towards achieving a necessary goal, in that case the preservation of freedom and democracy. Then as now there wasn't a prefect master plan of how that goal might be achieved. It just requires a total commitment to get it done.
It is surprising then, that after decades of debate about climate change, that BCSEA is advocating that we just wait until we have the perfect master plan for sustainable energy. What we need to do is simple enough: stop burning carbon, and find alternative energy sources. And we need to proceed as expeditiously as possible on all fronts. In time, the market and technology will sort out which mix of energy sources is best for our part of the world. We do know there will be huge intermittency problems as we eliminate fossil fuels, and the only large scale solution to intermittency of supply will be water stored at elevation (that is to say hydro reservoirs). In short we very much will need Site C in any plausible scenario.