Is the decision to continue with the Site C dam in the public’s interest?
If this was the 1960s, far from being controversial, Site C would have been welcomed as a modern engine of economic development.
Harnessing BC’s rivers by public utilities was a widely accepted means of creating jobs, generating long-term electricity sales to fund public services, controlling floods, irrigating farmland, and creating reservoirs for recreation. Even today, energy from large hydroelectric projects is arguably cleaner than the Tar Sands, nuclear energy, fracking, coal, and off-shore oil drilling.
Today, we know, although it’s not widely discussed, large-hydro is not as clean as once believed. Reservoirs are not lakes. Organic debris such as plant matter and algae accumulate behind dams. It decomposes in the absence of oxygen and releases methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Large hydro reservoirs destroy riparian ecosystems: Riverside native, terrestrial and aquatic, plant and animal habitat. Riparian ecosystems are the most productive, most diverse and the most threatened in BC. Riparian ecosystem loss is high because we value waterfront properties as human habitat. Our habitation clashes with resident plants and animals. If plants and animals could speak, our arrival would be followed by a deafening chorus of, “There goes the neighbourhood.”
Assuming power generation from Site C is necessary could the same amount of power be generated at a lower cost? Yes, at least three different ways. A study approximately 15 years ago showed that if the same amount as the cost of Site C was invested in energy conservation, more power could be saved than Site C would generate. Since the study was published, the cost of Site C has ballooned while the cost of energy conservation has fallen.
Two other renewable energy technologies have improved in efficiency and declined in cost since the 1960s. Three hundred third generation wind turbines, each 150 m tall with blades 60 m long and rated at 3 MW would generate as much power as Site C at a lower cost. Wind energy would permit more land to remain in use for agriculture without methane emissions or riparian ecosystem loss. BC has abundant wind resources.
Geothermal power generation involves drilling a hole three kilometres into the ground, installing a U-shaped pipe, injecting water into one end and recovering steam from the other. Steam can drive a turbine just like it does in a coal or nuclear power plant. The difference is the water is boiled by the thermal gradient of the earth rather than by burning coal or a nuclear reaction. The thermal gradient of the earth, 3°C per 100 m of depth, is the natural heat of the earth’s core, the source of volcanoes. Capital and operating costs of geothermal electric power generation are considerably lower than large hydro and its ecological footprint is considerably smaller.
Technology has changed since the 1960s. Today, with conservation, wind, and geothermal energy we can obtain the same amount of power as Site C at a lower financial cost and with fewer adverse environmental impacts. In spite of these advances, Site C was started by the BC Liberals. The BC New Democratic – Green partnership has chosen to complete the project.
It’s not surprising that the BC Liberal Party, a conservative party, preferring the tried and true, languishing in the 1960s would favour large hydro in 2017.
What is surprising is the NDP – Green partnership supporting large hydro over lower cost, greener alternatives. Why? The answer is political.
To stop Site C would cost four billion dollars with nothing to show for the expense. You can imagine the heckling if the NDP – Green partnership chose that option. To continue the project will require at least another six billion dollars, but BC will own what may be the last large hydro-electric project ever built. It wasn’t the NDP-Green partnership that brought us to this point; it was a BC Liberal legacy. When will the BC Liberals accept that technology has moved on, it’s time to get a haircut, mothball their bell bottoms and mini-skirts, and enter the 21st century?
As for the NDP – Green partnership, they were caught on the horns of a dilemma. They’ve chosen to suffer the wrath of environmentalists who would never vote Liberal and pander to the swing voters in the middle of the road with the hope of long-term political survival.