Site C Dam story changes again - now it's about powering California

Site C Dam story changes again – now it’s about powering California


Site C Dam story changes again - now it's about powering California

The $10 Billion proposed Site C Dam could provide power for export to California, BC Hydro representatives told the Joint Review Panel examining the project on the final day of public hearings, last week in Fort St. John.

A last-minute change to the story that keeps on changing, the new rationale for the dam confirmed the suspicions of some the hearings’ observers. “We thought we didn’t need the energy,” said the Peace Valley Environment Association’s Andrea Morison, “but we hadn’t heard from Hydro or any other credible source for a long time that it was for the U.S., and we just found out it was for California.”

Site C’s ever-evolving rationale

Over the past 3 decades, British Columbians have been given a bunch of different reasons for flooding 50,000 acres of the beautiful, agriculturally productive Peace River Valley. In the beginning, we were told that Site C was urgently needed to power “450,000 homes” – lest we face brown-outs from a severe energy shortage (we’ve never even come close).

Then, when it became apparent that BC now faces a domestic power surplus for years to come, we heard on a number of occasions from Premier Christy Clark that Site C was instead required for powering the enormously energy-intensive liquefied natural gas (LNG) process.

Finally, in what came off as a weak, “Hail Mary” attempt to justify the dam before an increasingly skeptical review panel, BC Hydro offered the following explanation:

[quote]Our hydro capacity, including the existing capacity we have, and including Site C, is perfectly suited to helping California…We see that as a big opportunity.[/quote]

California dreamin’

The revelation came as panel chairman Harry Swain raised the issue of California’s increased need for power amid drought conditions currently affecting the state’s hydro dams.

“Our trading folks are working very hard to try to find a way for us to help,” replied Chris O’Riley, Hydro’s executive vice-president overseeing generation in the province.

On one level, this makes perfect sense. Of all the reasons for building Site C, powering BC’s own homes and businesses is not one of them.

We know this because in 2012, BC exported a surplus of 5,800 gigawatt hours of power – roughly 10% of our total provincial demand. That figure more than doubled from the previous year. We’re already awash in private power we didn’t need in the first place but are forced to pay over a billion dollars a year for. On top of that, despite population increases, our demand has flatlined – BC uses roughly the same amount of electricity today as it did a decade ago.

That’s how you go from allegedly needing this power for 450,000 homes to having such an excess of it that the only possible justification for flooding the Peace Valley is selling power to California!

Rising costs drive conservation

This flatlining consumption undermines Hydro’s oft-repeated assumption that there is a direct and linear correlation between population growth and energy demand. The record suggests that’s simply not the case.

And it’s not just true in BC. According to a recent Associated Press story, the same trend can be observed south of the border – ostensibly our new market for power from Site C:

[quote]The average amount of electricity consumed in U.S. homes has fallen to levels last seen more than a decade ago, back when the smartest device in people’s pockets was a Palm pilot and anyone talking about a tablet was probably an archaeologist or a preacher. [/quote]

The combination of increased energy efficiency, conscious conservation efforts like Hydro’s Powersmart program, and higher power bills has kept consumption in check on either side of the 49th parallel.

But this should come as no surprise. Throughout its history, BC Hydro has chronically and significantly overestimated future demand – typically by 10-20% – a proud heritage that continues to this day.

Part of the issue is the way Hydro’s model for future energy demand in BC fails to take into account the effect of skyrocketing power bills for British Columbians – 28% over the next five years. And that’s without Site C, which Hydro pegs at an unbelievably low cost of $8 Billion. According to the World Bank, the average cost overrun for dams around the world is 27%. And this is the BC Liberals we’re talking about here – you know, the gang that can’t build a capital project for less than double the sticker price (see stadium roof, convention centre, Northwest Transmission Line, Port Mann Bridge).

Throw the cost of Site C on top of Hydro’s well over $20 Billion in total debt, plus over $50 Billion in high-priced contractual obligations and we can expect those bills to continue their steady climb. Just like high gas prices convince people to trade their SUVs for Corollas, so, apparently, do rate increases incentivize electricity conservation. But you won’t hear that kind of common sense from BC Hydro.

Powerex: a $750 million lesson

Before BC spends – let’s call it $10 Billion – of taxpayers’ money to build a dam which likely won’t produce one watt of energy until the middle of the next decade, let us pause for a moment to reflect on the utility’s last big foray into the California market: the scandalous energy crisis of the early 2000’s.

If we were deciding whether or not to build Site C based on typical spot market prices for power south of the border today, it would never happen – they’ve been far too low in recent years to make a profit off Site C’s costly power. In fact, this strategy would prove a big money loser, as our present experience dumping high-priced private power on the market today is teaching us.

Now, if the theory is that persistent drought conditions will mean higher electricity prices in California 10 years from now, well, that’s a $10 Billion gamble – one fraught with risk, which the Powerex debacle reminds us. Earlier this year, British Columbians were hit with a $750 million settlement relating to fraudulent power trading by Hydro’s export arm the last time the California market went into overdrive.

Thus, the dream of big exports to to California does not make for a sound foundation upon which to build Site C.

Hydro’s credibility gap

More than anything, Hydro’s continual flip-flopping on Site C’s need and its inability to accurately predict the future leave it with no credibility in the eyes of the public – and, let’s hope, the panel deciding the project’s future.

It’s time to pull the plug on Site C Dam, once and for all.


About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.

28 thoughts on “Site C Dam story changes again – now it’s about powering California

  1. Yes nice $10 billion in taxpayers money but let’s not put the B.C workers to work first, give the work away to out of province and overseas companies, hire us and when you can’t supplies the man power go on to the next province and so on, union trade workers not good enough, oh but were all are good enough to pay $10 billion . Why not pay it back to the tax payers with interest why are we flipping 10 billion out?

  2. Can we please have an informed discussion about the true big picture story about southwest US/northern Mexico energy AND water security.,links to BC taxpayer subsidized Site C dam AND reservoir….supported by local ec sectors for ‘water security’ noting BC AGR just put out RFP for irrigation study linked to the “potential” Site C reservoir and also use of existing and redundant pipeline infra…may make a lot of sense to do this but have the collective resource shareholders – BC and FN citizens…been adequately informed, advised and consulted on this backroom strategy??? Or is this another Gordie Scambel-like HST move to do things with their MAJORITY mandat…lets not kid ourselves…energy AND watet exports is the end game! See the machiovellians at work via “NAWAPA XXI” and consider Nat Resource Defense Council report on US midwwst “water pipe dreams” + Columbia Treaty renewal + LNG pipelines + SITE c etc in context…and then we can do the Geopolitical math!;

  3. I have worked in that area for years in Chetwynd & Hudson Hope. Site C dam is not just about power to the US but future power supply to BC. Take a look at the series of dams on the Columbia River from Nelson To Castlegar and further into Washington State. There is NO massive flooding in series dams. The site C dam will flood an area less than a couple Saskatchewan farms. North America’s electric power needs will always be greater than the supply. This project will help meet those needs and avert nuclear, coal, or natural gas powered plants that we clearly and environmentally don’t want to see. It will provide jobs, tax income, and clean energy to North America with extremely little environmental impact and with consideration given to less coal, nuclear or gas fired power generation this is a no brainer. Go to the Kootenays and see what I mean, then take a drive up to the Peace and you’ll see what I’m talking about or would you rather risk another Chernoble or Fukishima nuclear plant in North America by protesting this project.

  4. The BC Peace River area has given enough. We are keeping the rest of this province afloat with our booming Oil and Gas, lumber, mining industries, and 2 previous man made disasters the WAC and Peace Canyon Dams. These power sources are NOT Clean nor Green, and they have already destroyed a NON renewable resource, Valley land and wildlife habitats. The 1st 2 dams have practically decimated the Woodland Caribou which used to roam the valley by the thousands, we have about 70 left. The moose population was reported as “steady” by BC Hydro, but they forgot the rest of that sentence it seems as in; Steadily declining to nothing, as well. The fish in the reservoirs have an “Eat one fish only/week.” warning signs on their banks, as they are polluted with Methyl Mercury from the vegetation and trees rotting and percolating, in the reservoirs. I wonder if the Bald and Golden Eagles, bears, ravens, wolf, coyote, fox and River Otters can read those warning signs?

    I say, “Build your own power down there close to where it is needed. Put up a nice big Garbage Burner in the middle of Stanley Park, to produce heat and power as Denmark does. Right now Vancouver is shipping 2,200 TONS of garbage to Cache Creek/DAY! A re-newable, endless supply, of energy producing, capable resource being shipping off and “Dumped” un-used out of sight and out of mind, CRAZY Waste.

    “OOOO” You say, “Not in our beautiful ‘Stanley Park!’ are you out of your mind? That would be awful for us poor/wealthy, civilized Vancouverites to have to look at that in our beloved PARK.”

    Well guess what??? We don’t want our beautiful Valley destroyed and the inhabitants who live in it Human, bird and animal, to be flooded, homea and habitats lost and drowned, so you guys can leave your dam lights on ALL night! or sell us out to a bunch of Colifornians who don’t shut their lights off at night! Pretty sure California has plenty of Garbage to burn and turn into power as well, let them figure it out.

    Can Geo gave a brilliant report on the high class geo thermal capabilities of the whole province of BC. One geo thermal plant could produce the almost 3x the power of site C on a very small piece of land, it is very green power, solid reliable and everlasting. If there is a hotspring there is class 1 source for power generation. So I’d like to see 10 billion invested into that. The Burrard Thermal could be brought up to code for 500 million dollars, Yep you read right cause I heard it right from that little worm economist Chris o Riley’s mouth, when asked (3x) about bringing Burrard up to emmission code rather than flooding a Valley for 10 +++ Billion dollars, But Chris said, (little weiner that he is) ” The roof is 50 years old as is the entire facility. We were concerned with not getting environmental approval for it because of its age.” What School of Morons is this twerp from?? Is he serious? So they decided to pursue a project that would cost 10X the $$ that already has TWO Environmental refusals over a 30 year span? It would cost 1.3 billion dollars to replace the entire Burrard Thermal, and it would be up and running producing power in a 1/4 of the time. Or if you whiny West Coast NIMBY’s can’t stand that, we’ll erect one here, (we’ve got LOTS of Natural Gas here to power one or two of those Puppy’s) on some rocky bit class 7 or 8 land, and charge the hell outa you to ship it down there where it is needed, and we’ll keep, what’s left of our food producing spectacular Valley thanks.

    1. I live in the lower mainland. I completely agree with upgrading Burrard Thermal. There will be jobs for highly qualified engineers and tradespeople and it will burn reasonably clean. It is moronic to tear down a perfectly good facility that serves as backup, if not actually as part of regular production. Problem is there will be no developers and real estate agents making money from the sale of the land. Rightly so, they are not adding value and manufacturing something useful….there should be no monetary reward unless one adds value. BC Hydro is currently (no pun intended) planning a new transmission line through Metro Van to service the downtown core. One of the routes incorporates Burrard Thermal. BC Hydro engineering has been told to consider Burrard Thermal closed and that it is not to have any influence on the route chosen for this new line. Burrard Thermal provides an important role in balancing all of the expensive IPP lake draining power projects and other non-firm sources like wind and solar. It makes no difference if natural gas is burned here or in China. Same planet. Might as well take advantage of our natural, inexpensive supply here where we will do a better job of clean burning anyways. Closing Burrard Thermal is a political decision, not based on engineering expertise. Nor apparently on economic expertise, if one considers residents, businesses and taxpayers. It actually increases the value of the electricity we do export, even if the quantity is not increased. I agree, if you need electricity then you should allow the production of said electricity be in your backyard. That is a sure-fire (pun intended) way of promoting conservation. Tell that to California. We are so lucky that Christy Clark has altered the laws of physics just for us and made natural gas green….let’s take advantage. For the record, I personally am in favour of waste to power facilities….there are plenty of nearby locations that are not in sensitive airshed. The decisions being made for BC Hydro engineers by “economic gurus” border on treasonous. No, I do not work for Hydro.

      1. Of course it makes a difference whether it is burned here or China… there’s a humongous eco footprint of packaging and transporting over land and sea. Let the Chinese get it from their own backyard.

  5. I believe it always was about California.

    Remember the not so long ago when Scampbell was schmoozing Arnold Schwarzzenegger?

    The two things Arnold’s controllers (Monsanto and Cargill) needed were cheap water and power, the two things Scambell could provide in abundance if he could only kill off all those pesky Fraser River salmon by flooding our coast with diseased foreign fish farms, leaving no reason to not dam the Fraser or divert it’s flows.

    Their wet dream of a ‘Hydrogen Highway’ was really about water and electricity to fuel the agricultural monopoly in California while paying down Scampbells outrageous spending sprees.

    McLean taught Scampbell the art of theft by conversion and paved the way to hell for BC.

  6. The main stream media(MSM) has again fallen flat on its face for not reporting truthfully on this issue. The same as they kept quite through the last election. One of these days the public will realize that we must keep ourselves current and that our MSM remain neutral and report the facts, not just the govt sound bite.

  7. The B.C. government could have easily put a solar panel on several thousand rooftops in the areas that get the most sun. All of those households would’ve volunteered of course and all excess electricity sold would be money in the government’s coffers. Alas … no foresight on this or any other matter. Linking ourselves further to a country set to implode is not a good idea.

  8. Well, this explains the Powerex payout in CA after years of refusing to pay.

    On Jan 15, 2014, the Californians rejected BC Hydro power from river diversion projects because our environmental laws and regulations are so weak. Given that many of the same laws apply to Site C and the latter’s impacts would be huge, I do not see why California would purchase this power any more than that produced by BC river diversion projects. Here is the link to the CA report: Thoughts?

  9. Yup……….and the IPP’s keep getting approved on top of this……why? Narrows Inlet on the Sunshine Coast just approved.

    1. IPPS are approved for a variety of reasons both commercial and even sometimes for the betterment of First Nations. However most of the activity is about powering LNG related infrastructure and mining.

      Site C was always for something other than LNG, its only the Premier constantly linking the two. Which is frightening, as it means she is just selling the gigs and not actually forwarding the interests of teh people who will pay for it.

      They think they have BC in the Bag on LNG development so why not link unnecessary infrastructure to it if it get the job done. Clearly telling people you need to build this for me to send the power to California is probably a tough sell, much better to have the Premier its needed for BC prosperity and Coleman to say ” We will do well selling hydro to these liquefaction facilities. ”

      they are hucksters and bold faced liars.

      Agreements like FIPPA demand that our politicians become promoters of their agenda which displaces their ability be our representatives.

      1. A big aspect of Site C is managing all the intermittent IPP power.

        So BC Hydro pays for $billions un-needed IPP power, then would pay $billions again for Site C, if it goes through.

        Not to mention $1 billion for the useless ‘smart grid’.

    2. Yes Narrows inlet should supply the sunshinecoast with power ,not anywhere else, It takes power to move power over long distances ! So close power sources should be used Everwhere!!!!

  10. I want to see $10 Billion spent on solar panels for every suitable rooftop in BC. True energy independence and a big load off the grid.

    1. Sign me up I’ve got LOTS of rooftop landscape on my farm, destined to fall into the proposed reservoir, should this man made environmental disaster ever be built!

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