BC’s Summer of Energy Discombobulation
There’s nothing like a BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) ruling to get our heated brain cells overworking. For a start, they don’t just say “yes” or “no”. They take evidence from witnesses, record cross-examinations, and sum it all up in 180 pages of technical argument, at the end of which they conclude, “Better to burn dirty gas than green power”.
When the climate change alarm bells have never rung louder around the world, and nations are rushing to produce more green power, is BC to go backwards, deliberately spend hundreds of millions of dollars to extend the life of the inefficient gas-burning Burrard Thermal power plant in Port Moody?
The Utilities Commission’s ruling was in response to BC Hydro’s Long Term Acquisition Plan, which lays out how they plan to meet BC’s future power needs through energy efficiency, upgrades to existing hydro dams, and the purchase of new green power. This is rational planning at its best, leaving aside the partisan debate about private versus public power.
Because the Burrard Thermal plant is old, expensive, and polluting, BC Hydro only uses it when it really has to - it is usually cheaper to import dirty power than to fire up our own dirty plant. The government wants to see it phased out, and BC Hydro planned to reduce its back-up dependency on the plant from 6,000 gigawatt hours per year to 3,000, while purchasing up to 3,000 GWh/yr of green power to replace it. What could be more rational?
Electricity from the Burrard Thermal plant will be cheaper, was the nub of the BCUC ruling. That may seem logical if your thoughts are grounded in the energy flat world of the 1970s, before we knew about climate change, and its potential to bring our civilization to a painful and grinding halt before the century is out.
The BC Utilities Commission is required to serve “the public interest”, but until 2008 it had always equated “public interest” with “cheap power”. This has always been the BC fixation, even though our power is the third cheapest in all North America.
In 2008, however, the government passed the Utilities Commission Amendment Act, which is very specific: “In determining … whether to accept a long-term resource plan, the commission must consider the government's energy objectives”, which it defines as including, at the top of the list, “encourage public utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” What could be more clear? If the Burrard plant is used as proposed, it will be the single largest point-source of greenhouse gas emissions in the province.
The government’s stated objectives also include generating and acquiring electricity from renewable sources - not from the greenhouse gas producing, smog inducing Burrard Thermal plant.
“But ah,” the Commissioners reply in their report, “BC Hydro will simply buy carbon offsets for the greenhouse gases produced beyond 2016.” There is not a single paragraph in the 180-page report that addresses the problem of climate change.
Is this what things have come to? That whenever climate change crops up, we parrot the words “buy offsets”? Will tree planting in Maple Ridge make up for greenhouse gases in Port Moody? This was never the intent of BC’s Climate Action Plan. The commitment to a 33% reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions was never intended to be sugar coated with the easy purchase of “get out of jail” carbon indulgences.
All around the world, nations are accelerating their drive to replace fossil-fueled power with renewable energy from the wind, sun, tides, and other sources. This is the future - our planet is embarking on a huge civilizational shift that will see the total abandonment of fossil fuels in favour of safe, green energy. Yet here in BC, the BCUC has sent the opposite message to the green energy industry - don’t waste your time and money on an innovative energy future, for we’d rather spend ratepayers money on fixing up fossil fuels. COPE, the BC Hydro workers union, is in happy agreement, since the fossil-fueled jobs will be unionized.
Some will argue that since BC Hydro hardly ever uses Burrard Thermal, it being so inefficient and expensive to run, the decision doesn’t matter. But if we deliberately stop green energy and pour more money into Burrard, surely we are increasing the likelihood that it will be used more rather than less? It’s a strange, discombobulated world we live in. One day, we’re at the head of the pack on climate change, and the next, we’re dragging our feet with the dinosaurs.
Guy Dauncey is President of the BC Sustainable Energy Association