BY ANDREW OKULITCH
In his April 26 “Site C dam should be election issue” Viewpoint, my good friend Richard Kerr has cogently and perceptively summarized the opposition to Site C by numerous highly respected individuals and organizations.
I share that respect, but all their conclusions suffer from one serious flaw: they are narrow in their understanding of how electrical energy systems work and they fail to look far enough into the future.
I would make an analogy with a human being. In its first few years, it pollutes, exhausts the resources of its parents and gives little back to society. Yet, we don’t stop having babies, because the contributions he or she will certainly make over a 50- to 100-year lifespan outweigh the “start-up” costs. That span is similar to that of a large hydro dam and all criticisms of Site C have concentrated on those few initial very messy and expensive years and ignored the decades of relatively green, clean and, most importantly, storable, energy that it will provide.
But what about supposedly greener, smaller-scale alternate sources such as wind, solar and geothermal? Certainly, no clean, alternate source should be ignored, but firstly, it is necessary to factor in all stages of their manufacture, maintenance and connections to the energy grid. Once the mining, refining, running of factories, transportation of components, assembly, construction of roads to remote sites, cutting of transmission line corridors, etc. are included, no alternatives turn out to be really green. There is no free lunch in any complex energy-producing system. The primary difference between these sources and hydro is storage. Storage is essential to deal with surges in demand and the fluctuating supply from alternate sources.
For example, last year in Germany, which now has the capacity to generate over 80 per cent of its electrical needs through wind and solar, thermal generating plants burning very dirty brown coal idled at 40 per cent capacity all year to provide the necessary backup. Evolving battery technology is cited as the solution to this, but again, batteries, which have a relatively short life, have to be made from mined and refined resources. A lot of them would be needed to equal the storage capacity of a reservoir, which, once built, contributes only low levels of greenhouse gases and these die away over time.
Critics of BC Hydro have also concentrated on its debt and cash flow. It is important to remember that a good portion of that debt was caused by successive governments siphoning profits from it to balance their budgets. And, as Richard noted, it was government policy that mandated BC Hydro to buy expensive power from “independent power producers.” If such alternate sources are supposed to be the wave of the future, and cheaper than hydro, why are they so expensive now? And why are those producers whining that if Site C comes online they will be driven out of business because they can’t generate power as cheaply?
It has been frequently stated that we have a surplus of power and that the projects that Site C was initially supposed to support (mining, LNG, etc.) may never — should never — be advanced, so Site C is not needed. That remains debatable (e.g. the mining might be needed for the raw materials for windmills and geothermal plants), but even if true, the needs of the future must somehow be considered.
Present studies all talk about “not needed now” and “for years.” Predictions over the lifetime of Site C are, of course, not possible, but instead of trying to predict the future, perhaps we should try to manage it. What if we set the goal to eventually achieve a totally green, hydrocarbon-free society and try to estimate how much energy we would need not only to run it, but to make the conversion to it? Among the things to consider would be the whole chain of processes of remaking all our vehicles, replacing all heating systems in homes, offices and factories that currently use oil or gas and replacing all industrial machinery that isn’t electrical. And don’t forget all those things that I described in the chain that makes those windmills and solar panels.
The energy needs will be huge and the time long, but the sooner we can bring large, reliable and clean sources like Site C online, the sooner we can begin the process of replacement and the cleaner our society will become. That will ultimately benefit all citizens.
The writer is scientist emeritus with the Geological Survey of Canada who lives on Salt Spring .