British Columbia·Analysis

Could B.C.'s Site C dam's 'clean' power actually fuel dirty energy?

The CBC's Calyn Shaw examines where the energy produced by the $8.8-billion dam might go - and whether it will be powering the oilsands in Alberta.

The CBC examines where the energy produced by the $8.8B dam might go

A view shows a portion of the Peace River Valley that would be flooded by the construction of the Site C dam. (Peace Valley Environmental Association/YouTube)

Last week, the B.C. government approved the $8.8-billion Site C dam — a massive hydroelectric project that would flood a large area of the Peace River Valley in northeastern British Columbia.

Premier Christy Clark says the 1,100-megawatt dam will ensure the province's energy self-sufficiency for the next 100 years.

The government also describes the project as a vital source of "clean energy," which it is if you consider it's simply water from a reservoir turning turbines to produce electricity.

But what if we were to take a more holistic approach to our understanding and analysis of B.C.'s primary power source?

British Columbia is a net exporter of electricity

The provincial government has made it clear that Site C is about meeting future electricity demands. But the province is currently energy self-sufficient; we are a significant net exporter of power.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark says the Site C dam will ensure B.C.'s energy self-sufficiency for the next 100 years at a reliable cost to the taxpayer. (CBC)

According to BC Hydro's own growth forecasts, by 2024, the annual energy demand, after the current conservation plan, will almost equal the projected annual energy supply — without Site C.

This would seem to indicate that when Site C comes online, almost all of the 5,100 gigawatt hours of electricity produced annually will be in excess of projected demand within the province.

So, where will this power go? The answer to that question has a huge bearing on whether we can and should see the project as good for the environment.

LNG industry driving demand projections

The majority of BC Hydro's projected growth in demand for electricity will come from the natural gas industry; turning it into a liquefied form takes massive amounts of energy.

According to an analysis published last year in the Financial Post, citing Calgary-based LNG generator TransAlta Corp:

"Power demands to cool up to 10 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas into a frozen fuel could range from 2,000 to 4,000 megawatts between 2018 and 2025."

A view of Peace River, B.C., above the proposed Site C dam site. (Eliza Massey Stanford)

The same Financial Post report also provides an insightful quote from energy lawyer Warren Brazier:

"If all the LNG plants are built, they're going to need the equivalent of 50 per cent of the existing power in B.C."

And while some LNG facilities are likely to use self-generated power, some of the energy produced at Site C is already earmarked for the LNG industry. In NovemberBC Hydro signed its first deal with an LNG proponent.

The problem is that using hydroelectricity to power LNG production is essentially turning a clean power source into a dirtier one for the sole purpose of export.

Using clean energy to power dirty energy

According to a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternativesthe total amount of greenhouse gas emissions arising from natural gas production in B.C. by 2020 — much of it exported and burned in Asia — could range from 167 to 305 million tonnes per year.

If this is the case, it would mean the B.C. government is choosing to use our clean power to drive dirtier energy production.

The other thing we do with excess electricity is sell the power to other places like California and Alberta.

In an email to the CBC, a BC Hydro spokesperson declined to provide figures for the exact amount of power exported to our neighbours in 2013, citing “proprietary trading information."

Read BC Hydro's full response

When we send power to California, enabling it to swap its dirtier coal power for our relatively cheap hydro, then the clean energy argument holds water.

That argument also holds true for some of the power we send to Alberta, as it could displace coal-generated power.

In 2013, Alberta generated the majority of its electricity from coal — more than 39,000 gigawatt hours. By contrast, hydroelectric accounted for just over 2,000 gigawatt hours.

The problem is, Alberta's most energy-intensive industry is oilsands production, and inexpensive hydroelectricity from B.C. could be used in part to power oilsands extraction.

Are we contributing to oilsands extraction?

Some of B.C.'s largest sources of hydroelectricity are less than 1,000 kilometres from the hub of Canada's oil production. It stands to reason that some of the power we send to Alberta could go directly to operations in the oil patch.

report to the Alberta Ministry of Energy says oilsands production will translate into electricity demand growth of 2.4 per cent every year until 2032.

If we send electricity to northern Alberta to power the oilsands — or to meet an energy deficit caused by oilsands production — we would again be sullying a relatively clean source of energy.

This Sept. 19, 2011 aerial photo shows an oilsands mine facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The situation gets messier for British Columbians if our clean power then contributes to bitumen from Alberta being piped across B.C. via the environmentally controversial Northern Gateway pipeline.

We would essentially be trading low-cost electricity for all the risks associated with piping bitumen across the province.

So when considering the Site C project, it is worth remembering that the dam isn't necessarily about supplying power to the homes of British Columbians.

It is potentially about meeting the energy demands of the resource industry — resources that create substantial greenhouse gas emissions during extraction, and when consumed.

It’s worth considering this end result when determining the true cost of so-called clean power.


Calyn Shaw

Senior writer

Calyn Shaw is a senior writer at CBC News Network. He holds a master of journalism from UBC, and an MA in Politics and International Studies from the University of Warwick. He was formerly a research fellow at UBC's Centre for Social Innovation and Impact Investing, where he worked on the centre's Climate Intelligence Program.


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