The Site C hydro dam is "perfectly suited" to help energy-starved California deal with its power problems, BC Hydro said on Thursday.
The comments came on the final day of five weeks of public hearings on the dam in Fort St. John and the North Peace, a day that focused much on the need for, and alternatives to Site C, along with Hydro's forecast future energy needs.
Early in the morning, Joint Review Panel Chair Harry Swain zeroed in on reports of a drought facing California this summer, which could cost the state some 2,500 megawatts of hydroelectric power, and how that is expected to shake up energy prices in the spot export market.
Chris O'Riley, Hydro's executive vice-president overseeing generation in the province, noted it was tough to speculate on short-term markets, especially when weather plays a major factor, but that Powerex, Hydro's export trading arm, is standing at the ready.
He also noted California is facing "ramping" problems when it comes to solar power, and high peak demand for the energy during the evening.
"It is a real problem over the morning and evening peak when… the sun goes down, and you get people cooking and plugging in their electric cars and doing everything it is they do when they get home," said O'Riley.
"Our trading folks are working very hard to try to find a way for us to help. 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."
Hydro is aiming to build a 60-metre-high earth dam about seven kilometres southwest of Fort St. John, along with a 1,100-megawatt generating station. Hydro has repeatedly said it needs the third dam on the Peace River to meet a forecast 40 per cent jump in domestic electricity demands over the next 20 years.
Andrea Morison of the Peace Valley Environmental Association said many critics have suspected the U.S. export market is helping drive the need for Site C, though Hydro has not been forthcoming or entirely clear of where the dam's energy will be used, she said.
"It was our understanding (the dam and its energy) was for liquefied natural gas, then we found out it wasn't for liquefied natural gas, and BC Hydro kept saying it was for our growing economy and 450,000 homes," said Morison during a break in the hearings.
"We thought we didn't need the energy, 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.
"(The panel is) listening, asking questions and trying to draw this information out," said Morison.
According to Hydro figures, the utility will need the additional energy Site C will provide by 2027 without LNG development. The utility says it will need the energy at least three years earlier than that if LNG growth is low, and draws about 800 gigawatts of energy per year from the power grid. High LNG growth could mean the energy is needed by 2021, if projects proceed and draw up to 6,600 gigawatts of energy per year.
Hydro says industrial loads are expected to increase faster than population growth over the next eight years because of mining, gas development.
Swain prodded Hydro over the decision to decommission the Burrard Thermal plant in Port Moody, noting many throughout the hearings have said it has largely helped drive the need for Site C by removing some 6,100 gigawatt-hours of potential energy from the province. Many believe the province is "trading air pollution in the Lower Mainland for a set of consequences" in the North, said Swain.
O'Riley said Hydro had been ordered to phase out its reliance on Burrard in 2007, and the 2010 Clean Energy Act eliminated it from being used altogether.
Under the act, Hydro must generate 93 per cent of its energy from clean, renewable resources. Upgrades to the Mica Dam on the Columbia River and the ongoing construction of the Northwest Transmission Line have completely replaced Burrard, O'Riley said.
Burrard would need up to $500 million in upgrades to make it "useful," said O'Riley, however, the federal government is drafting climate change legislation targeting gas-fired plant emissions such as Burrard that are more than 50 years old.
"All that money, with gas and electricity prices and carbon taxes, it's just going to sit there and we're going to end up importing energy, and that is outside the policy," said O'Riley.
"We'd be pouring money into a plant that wouldn't run."
Hydro says it is studying the potential of geothermal energy in northeastern B.C. The utility told the panel it has co-funded a study with Geoscience BC to develop a map of geothermal resources in the region, though Hydro's contribution is under $100,000.
Randy Reimann, Hydro's director of resource planning, noted Hydro has not been given a role to fund research and development of resource development since province's 2002 Energy Plan.
"We were expected to continue the Two Rivers projects, while everything else was left to independent power producers to explore and develop," he said.
Drilling for geothermal is still high risk and high cost, but it remains an "attractive resource" to the utility, said Reimann.
If Site C does not receive approval, Hydro says it will have to rely on planned upgrades to both its Revelstoke Dam and Generating Station on the Columbia River, and the WAC Bennett Dam on the Peace River to add capacity to the provincial energy grid, and rely on independent power producers to provide the energy.
Hydro is in the midst of adding a sixth generating unit at Revelstoke and is in the process of replacing five turbines at the GM Shrum Generating Station. The upgrades, around $650 million, would add 500 megawatts of capacity and 177 gigawatt hours of electricity annually to B.C.
That appears to be a "quantifiable trade off" to the environmental consequences of Site C, Swain noted.
Michael Savidant of BC Hydro noted all power projects have impacts on the environment, and that upgrades to Revelstoke and GM Shrum, along with increasing reliance on independent producers would "spider web" those impacts across multiple sites across the province.
Susan Yurkovich, Hydro executive vice-president for Site C, noted that putting off construction of Site C for a decade would not change B.C.'s need for electricity in the future.
"We recognize that these are big decisions and they have impacts, and they take courage and they invite very significant conversations," she said.
"They have in the past…and they have today."
Treaty 8 Tribal Chief Liz Logan concluded the day’s hearing saying First Nations in the region don’t oppose development or energy creation, but urged balance that limits environmental damage.
“This project and its impacts far outweigh any benefits,” said Logan
“We have been and still are willing to work with the province and BC Hydro to solve this energy need in a balanced manner.”
The panel will file its report to the federal and provincial governments in April. The two governments will decide when the report will be made public, and a final decision on the project will be released this fall.
Site C will need federal authorization to proceed under the Fisheries Act, the Explosives Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Radiocommunication Act.
If approved, Site C would become operational sometime in 2024 or 2025.