BC VIEWS: W.A.C. Bennett would be proud
The battle of Pitt River ended with a sudden retreat by the B.C. Liberal government, but the war over private power development is just getting warmed up.
Environment Minister Barry Penner abruptly pulled the plug on a plan to service a proposed network of run-of-river generation facilities with a power line through Pinecone-Burke Provincial Park. It’s worth noting that the project itself wasn’t rejected, just the power line route. And it would be a mistake to see the Pitt River climb-down as a sign that the government’s push for small hydroelectric development is slowing down.
The biggest expansion of B.C.’s power grid since W.A.C. Bennett’s day is moving ahead, and it started well before Al Gore invented global warming.
In Premier Gordon Campbell’s first term, there was a quiet rush to stake river and wind claims when BC Hydro started signing private power contracts to increase clean energy supplies.
In 2006, the B.C. government removed local authority over power projects, putting them in the same league as mines and oil developments.
Then last week Energy Minister Richard Neufeld introduced a minor bit of housekeeping legislation, Bill 15, the Utilities Commission Amendment Act. Its main purpose is to impose the government’s new energy plan requirements on the commission, notably the ones about making B.C. self-sufficient in electricity by 2016 and mandating clean sources for almost all new generation.
The bill also gives the utilities commission a year to begin conducting an inquiry into the needs of the power grid over the next 20 years. And it gives the minister sweeping power to make regulations that can further direct the commission.
Neufeld hastened to assure me that the utilities commission, which embarrassed the government in 2006 by rejecting a rich power contract with Alcan, isn’t losing its independence.
“There are some powers that the minister has that we’ve clarified, that were always there, but they were pretty grey,” he said. “We’ve not changed that ability at all, other than to make it very clear that if there is a direction, it has to be followed.”
Well, nothing grey there. What about this 20-year plan? Is that to set the stage for a third dam on the Peace River, or the big power grid extension in the mineral-rich northwest?
He replied that it’s merely to make sure that if power lines are being built, they’re big enough to anticipate a given region’s growth.
“It’s like right-of-ways,” Neufeld said. “We should have had right-of-ways all over the province.”
That would include places like the so-called Great Bear Rainforest, where the world media not long ago hailed the creation of vast conservancy areas. A Vancouver company wants to put two run-of-river generators on the Nascall River near Bella Coola, and power lines to Anahim Lake that would cross Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. In application documents, the proponent says B.C. environment staff “have indicated that the conservancy designation would not be going ahead until there was agreement with First Nations and Independent Power Producers in the area.”
I suppose at this point, a suspicious sort might call this new utilities legislation the Build the Damn Power Line Where Dick Neufeld Wants It Act.
NDP critics focused their initial attacks on the “stealth privatization” of BC Hydro, warning that the April 1 jump in electricity rates is the first of many to come. Again and again they lauded W.A.C. Bennett’s vision of cheap public power.
Old Cecil may be smiling down on all this. He used the state to build huge dams because it was the only way. It’s full steam ahead once again, and I have a feeling he’d be pleased.
Power of the state
The NDP argues that small hydro projects are fine in certain places, as long as they are publicly owned. One might ask the members of the Tsay Keh Dene Band and the Kwadacha Nation how benign public power has been for them. Their cabins were evacuated and burned in the 1960s to make way for the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, which flooded their trapping and hunting territory to create the largest body of fresh water in the province. In 2006 the government settled lawsuits by paying each community $14 million plus ongoing support for dislocated villages, flooded hunting grounds and burial sites.
NDP energy critic John Horgan offered a more sensible critique than the old “evil privatization” routine. He says BC Hydro has saved billions by importing and exporting power, and small hydro is too costly.
“We’re buying it at $110 a megawatt hour,” Horgan said. “We could buy it on the spot market tomorrow for $45.”
Smart meters opposed
Bill 15 also requires the utilities commission to oversee the installation of “smart meters” in every B.C. home by 2012.
The B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre says the only real saving to BC Hydro will come from laying off meter readers, since they’ll be able to monitor everyone’s power consumption from head office. One MLA pointed out they will also be awesome for finding grow ops.
The NDP is opposed to smart meters, which I think is a mistake. Yes, it will cost close to a billion dollars to put them all in, but what’s being built here will be a model for the world. Put solar collectors on your roof and watch the discount accumulate.
California is watching, and applauding.
Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press newspapers. email@example.com