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Power to the Peace – but no dam

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The Peace River Valley

The Peace River Valley

Building a dam across the Peace River, at site C, seems to make sense – until you look at the numbers.

Looking at the BC Hydro website, one can read that

The Site C Clean Energy Project (Site C) is a proposed third dam and hydroelectric generating station on the Peace River in northeast B.C. Site C would provide 1,100 megawatts (MW) of capacity, and produce about 5,100 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity each year — enough energy to power the equivalent of about 450,000 homes per year in B.C.

One of the boosters of the dam added that

Even before Site C starts producing power for British Columbians, it would provide significant economic benefits, creating thousands of jobs in the region and across the province, and bolstering the provincial economy with a $3.2-billion increase in GDP during construction.

What’s not to like?  Except that a few things come up when examining the numbers.

First, there’s the usual “enough to power 450,000 homes”.  This is based on the common number that 1,000 kilowatt-hour are needed, monthly, to power a home.  This is actually a huge number; using very basic energy conservation measures (powerstar appliances, better insulation and lights), twice that many homes could be powered. A new house build according to PassivHaus standards (mandatory in Germany) would use less than 20% of this value. What this means is that none of that extra power would be needed if basic energy conservation measures were followed – and these would be cheaper to implement.

Then there is the issue of the boom-and-bust nature of the jobs that the dam promises.  There are indeed a lot of construction jobs during the ten years or so of the construction; nothing to sneer at.  But then all that is needed are a few guys throwing switches. Compare that to, say, wind power; wind is scalable, which means there are as many or as few jobs as the the wind farm is large or small, and that these jobs can be spread over time, creating lifetimes of employment, something much better to sustian communities.

In fact, in the Peace region, wind is huge.  A recent prospectus for the Quality Wind Project, in Tumbler Ridge, promoted a wind farm using 79 windmills rated for an installed power of 142 MW, “enough to power 43,000 homes”.  In other words, multiply the project by ten, and you have the capacity of the Site C project.  That’s about 800 windmills.  That’s big, yes, but comparable to other large wind farms in other countries.

The clincher is that the Quality Wind Project has already been built, is doing well, and the projected cost (in 2010) was $455 million.  Now Site C has an estimated tab of $7.9 billion (in 2011). Now, unless my figures are wrong, that means that, for the same power, wind is cheaper by about $3 billion.  And you get power deliveries much sooner.

Ah, but wind is intermittent, so it couldn’t replace a dam, now, could it?  Well, actually, it can.  That is because there is another pair of dams just up river.  And wind and hydropower make a beautiful couple; when the wind dies, hydro takes over, but when the wind is strong, water is kept in the reservoir (or even pumped back up, a set-up called pumped energy storage).  So intermittence is a red herring in this particular case.

Finally, the dam would flood some very productive farm land, farms that benefits from a unique microclimate that enables them to grow corn or melons – like the Lower Fraser Valley.  Farmgate returns represent a net revenue that would be lost to the flood.  And the current revenue is below its actual potential, because BC Hydro has been slowly buying land over the last decades in preparation for this project, land that is mostly idle.  If the project was to be canceled for good, the sale of these lands alone would represent a substantial windfall for BC Hydro (and the taxpayer).

Never mind that the unique land of the Peace River Valley are an important part of BC’s food security, or that it is also home to a number of rare species and ecosystems.  It is, as NDP energy critic John Horgan said, “a little slice of heaven.”  It must be preserved.

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Written by enviropaul

December 9, 2013 at 6:40 pm

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