By Vaughn Palmer, Vancouver Sun, September 8, 2011
The fight against climate change, partnerships with first nations and an emerging industry will all be undercut should the B.C. Liberals slacken their drive to make the province self-sufficient in electricity.
So said advocates for the province's clean power industry Wednesday, at a news conference in the provincial capital.
They were responding to one of the recommendations of the recent review of soaring electricity rates, namely that BC Hydro rely less on power purchased on a long-term basis from clean energy producers here in B.C., more on power purchased on the usuallycheaper-in-the-short-term spot electricity market.
Making the case against that shift in environmental terms was Andrew Weaver, the world-recognized climate scientist from the University of Victoria.
He once saw the province becoming a continental leader in the production of clean power. Now he worries it will fall back on power from dirty sources - coal-fired plants and the like - in Alberta and south of the border.
Weaver scoffed at the notion of basing any part of a longterm energy plan on the spot market. Yes, prices are attractive today owing to low prices for natural gas, the feedstock of many a generating plant in jurisdictions not as green as this one. As well, there's a glut of power from subsidized wind farms and other sources south of the border.
But one can readily imagine a scenario - an environmental backlash against shale gas, heightened concerns about climate change - that would push the spot market into realms that B.C. consumers could not afford. Weaver also offered a telling insight on water levels, the key consideration in determining self-sufficiency in a mostly hydroelectric generating system like the one in B.C.
Currently self-sufficiency is defined as Hydro having to acquire or build sufficient generating capacity to meet current and anticipated electricity needs even in the event of a repeat of the lowest water levels on record.
The review panel recommended abandoning that requirement in favour of one based on a rolling average of water levels in good and bad years combined.
But as Weaver noted, the socalled "worst-case scenario" is based on the recorded water levels during four years of drought in the 1940s. The climate records don't go back far enough to say whether that is the actual worst-case scenario.
With a view to gaining a more precise understanding, Weaver has recently been retained by BC Hydro on a four-year contract to conduct a detailed examination of the climatological factors affecting water levels.
Until his work is complete, the province would be wise not to base its energy planning on a presumed "average" of water levels that may not, in fact, be sustainable in the future.
Also making a case for the merits of the clean power industry was Judith Sayers, an associate professor of law at the University of Victoria and a member of the Hupacasath First Nation here on Vancouver Island.
She noted that more than half of the province's 200 first nations are involved in the clean energy sector, through a project of their own, a partnership or revenue-sharing agreement, or something in the planning stages that would mean jobs or revenue in the future.
Considering the remoteness of many native communities, it would be difficult to replace those ventures with other economic opportunities. Self-sufficiency, as Sayers observed, means much more to communities that were never on the grid in the first place.
Climate action. Partnerships with first nations. The presentations by Weaver and Sayers underscored the way that energy policy dovetailed with other government objectives under the B.C. Liberals.
Likewise, the accompanying pitch from the Clean Energy Association itself served as a reminder of how the Liberals nurtured the industry through its developmental years by pressing Hydro to dilute its own monopoly and buy power from a small but growing number of private operators. The result was denounced by climate change deniers, public sector absolutists and free marketeers alike.
But the result was also an industry that met the government's stated objectives, from attracting private investment, to creating economic activity in remote parts of the province, to producing power free of greenhouse gas emissions, to creating opportunities for first nations.
All that would be put at risk of stagnation and decline should the government adopt the review panel's lax definition of self-sufficiency and, in effect, impose a no-growth strategy, putting a stop to further development of long-term sources of clean power here in B.C.
Nevertheless, Premier Christy Clark and her ministers give every indication of planning to do just that, via an amendment to the Clean Energy Act, once the legislature resumes next month. If she does go that route, it would be a vindication of sorts for those who never saw any merit in the clean power industry in the first place.
But odd that a new premier, supposedly casting about for a jobs strategy, could be accused of helping to suffocate a relatively newborn industry in its crib.
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