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Wednesday, ‎June ‎18, ‎2008

Where we stand

Something vital has been hidden
in an emotional, one-sided public discussion

For all the attention that’s been given to electricity issues lately, something important has been obscured.

British Columbia has Canada’s greatest potential for generating electricity from geothermal sources. Our coast ranks among the world’s top five regions for potential wave-generated electricity. We have more than enough potential wind energy to replace Site C. We also have some of the world’s greatest potential for run-of-river hydro. These are but four potential sources of clean electricity especially suited to our climate and geography. All of them offer tremendous potential for future generations.

But the key word is “potential.” It’s almost entirely unrealized.

Instead, we have to import around 15 per cent of our electricity. Most of it comes from coal-fired plants, among the world’s worst sources of greenhouse gases. Much of our electricity infrastructure is badly in need of maintenance or facing the end of its lifespan. We’ve squandered the legacy of past generations. Unless something changes, our legacy for future generations will be a dwindling supply of electricity from dirty sources which will come at great cost to our finances, environment and energy security.

Or we could create an international paragon of clean, sustainable electricity. We could follow the example of countries that have developed green energy within stringent environmental standards. We could even surpass them.

Countries of central and northern Europe have decades of experience with wind-generated electricity. Almost every river in the European Alps hosts a run-of-river operation. Iceland gets most of its electricity and heat from geothermal sources. Britain, Denmark, Portugal, Australia, the U.S. and even Nova Scotia are developing electricity from the ocean.

B.C. has more potential for clean electricity than any one of those places. So where does that leave us?

In the midst of a nearly hysterical furor over run of river.

A campaign of increasing intensity has held a near-monopoly on public discussion about electricity in B.C. Some truly outrageous claims have been made so often that they’re widely accepted as true.

Independent producers can, if they meet a host of requirements, get temporary permission to generate electricity from a river. Therefore, we’re told, rivers are being given away, sold or stolen.

Out of about 480 water licence applications since 1990, around 35 run-of-river projects have been built. Therefore the number of rivers that are being given away, sold or stolen totals 500. Or 750. Or 8,000.

Each one of those applications crawls through a process of studies, reviews and consultations that requires at least 50 approvals from at least 10 government agencies. The process takes years. Most applications never make it. Therefore there’s little or no environmental oversight.

We’ve been net importers of electricity every year since 2001 and, even if we conserve, we’ll need maybe 45 per cent more electricity over the next two decades. Therefore the pre-2001 figures prove we don’t need more electricity.

Green energy does require construction. Therefore there’ll be environmental devastation.

Construction costs money. Therefore electricity rates will skyrocket.

Ridiculous logic? Disregard for facts? Those are the key arguments of the campaign against independently produced green energy.

Some of the key organizations behind this campaign, especially COPE 378, a BC Hydro union, and its ally, the Wilderness Committee, object to green energy mainly because it’s independently produced — in other words, not produced by COPE 378 members. If they defeat run of river they’ll go after other forms of independently produced electricity.

But if left up to BC Hydro we won’t develop green energy.

BC Hydro doesn’t have expertise in the many specialized fields necessary for these projects. Nor does it have the flexibility to manage several separate and diverse projects at once. Nor does it have the staff to maintain consultations and negotiations with First Nations and other communities in several regions at once.

Most importantly, BC Hydro can’t risk public money on all those projects that don’t get approved.

That’s not to pick on BC Hydro. The countries that have led the way in green energy have mostly relied on independents to develop those resources.

Although many well-meaning people take part in the campaign against independently produced clean energy, they probably don’t realize the motivations of many of the campaign’s key backers. They’re vested interests fighting to preserve the status quo.

But by serving the status quo we’re neglecting our potential. By neglecting our potential we’re neglecting future generations.

That is the real issue.