British Columbia

B.C. Utilities Commission says alternative energy projects could match Site C, but risks come either way

A highly anticipated report on whether the Site C dam in northeast B.C. makes economic sense has been released, setting the stage for the project to be killed or continue.

Liberals demand decision, Green Party leader Andrew Weaver says new report 'final nail in Site C's coffin'

A 120,000 signature petition calling on the federal government to halt construction of the Site C Dam. Amnesty International Canada, the Sierra Club of B.C. and other groups gathered the signatures in April 2017 to oppose the Peace River project in northeastern B.C. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Alternative energy sources such as wind and geothermal could be as good or better for B.C. ratepayers than the Site C project, according to a report prepared by the independent B.C. Utilities Commission (BCUC).

The independent body, which is responsible for making sure British Columbians pay fair rates for energy and ICBC costs, also found BC Hydro's projected energy needs are "excessively optimistic" and construction of the dam is likely behind schedule and over budget.

Key findings from the B.C. Utitlities Commission review of the Site C dam project. (BCUC)

Other key findings include:

  • Cancelling the project would cost $1.8 billion.
  • Suspending the project and restarting it at a later date would cost around $3.6 billion on top of existing construction costs.
  • Completing the project could cost over $10 billion.

The BCUC also notes that both completing and continuing the project come with their own unique risks.

The BCUC did not advise whether cancelling or continuing construction of Site C would be better for the province, instead it noted both scenarios come with unique risks. (B.C. Utilities Commission)

According to the report, the risks of completing Site C include unresolved issues with tension cracks, cost overruns and changes in technology leading to lower-than-predicted energy demands.

Canceling the project, the report says also has risks which include wind and geothermal energy ultimately being less viable than predicted and the potential inability to match the cost and certainty of hydro power.

The commission did not ultimately take a position on whether termination or completion of the project would provide a better outcome for ratepayers. 

Prep work for construction of the Site C dam takes place in 2016. The dam would flood 5,500 hectares of the Peace River Valley if completed, and provide energy to power the equivalent of around 500,000 homes. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

The report will play a key role in determining the future of the $8.8 billion megaproject in northeast B.C., which currently employs over 2,000 people in its construction and has been the subject of court challenges and political actions by Treaty 8 First Nations and local ranchers whose land is impacted by the project.

'Extremely difficult decision': energy minister

Energy Minister Michelle Mungall said her government will review the technical aspects of the report in detail and consult with First Nations before making a final decision sometime by the end of the year.

Provincial Energy Minister Michelle Mungall said the B.C. government will make a final decision on Site C by the end of 2017. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

"This will be an extremely difficult decision," she said. "We are going to take the time we need to make a decision on Site C that works for B.C. families, businesses and the sustainability of our environment and economy."

B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver said the new report is the "final nail in Site C's coffin," arguing it would be "fiscally reckless" for construction to continue. 

In Question Period, B.C. Liberal MLA Mike Bernier urged the government to provide "certainty" for the province and make a final decision on the project by the end of November.

"[Site C] is going to make sure that for generations to come we continue to have cheap, reliable, clean, firm power in the province," he said.

"We have thousands of jobs at stake. Obviously, this new government wants to let them know at Christmastime what their futures will be... people deserve to know," he continued.

"All we're asking for is for certainty in the province and a decision to be made, I think four weeks is quite realistic."

Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier represents a riding just south of the Site C dam. (CBC)

The BCUC report was prepared over the course of two months, during which time the commission held community input sessions across the province and reviewed reports on Site C compiled by BC Hydro and the auditing firm Deloitte LLP

The review looked specifically at whether the dam was on track for completion by 2024, and what effect continuing, stalling, or cancelling the project would have on ratepayers.

Bob Peever, construction manager Site C dam for BC Hydro. The B.C. Liberals argue the NDP should provide a decision on the project within four weeks in order to provide workers with certainty about their future. (Richard Zussman/CBC)

It was commissioned by the NDP shortly after forming government over the summer. The party argued the B.C. Liberals should have sent Site C for review in 2010 when then-premier Gordon Campbell announced the dam was once again on the table. 

The project was scrapped in the 1980s after a BCUC report found it would not be necessary to meet projected energy needs.

Mungall said that in keeping with the report's findings, suspension of the project is now off the table — leaving only completion or cancellation as a final option.

Site C violates treaty rights, reconciliation efforts: First Nations

Though Mungall said government will consult First Nations in order to keep their commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), she said the final decision on how to proceed will be up to Cabinet.

West Moberly First Nation Chief Roland Willson. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

West Moberly First Nation Chief Roland Willson argued the only way to keep the government's commitment to reconciliation and UNDRIP is to cancel the dam altogether. 

Site C should be scrapped, pulled off the shelf, burnt, so it can never come back again- Roland Willson

"If you're going to talk about reconciliation... Site C should be scrapped, pulled off the shelf, burnt so it can never come back again and we move forward on the alternatives package," he said.

B.C. Hydro's preferred route for Highway 29 realignment for Site C runs through the land of eight properties, including two who will have to move as a result. The West Moberly First Nation says it will also destroy land claimed as culturally significant by the Dunne-za people. (BC Hydro)

The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations argue flooding 5,500 hectares of the Peace River valley for the Site C dam infringes on their constitutionally-protected treaty rights and destroys traditional hunting land as well as important cultural sites and burial grounds.

Willson said the BCUC's findings on alternative energy options match something he's been arguing for years: jobs can be created and energy needs met without flooding the Peace River Valley.

Over 1,000 people lined up at a Site C job fair in Prince George in 2016 for a chance to drop off their resume and make a short pitch to contractors building the $1.75 billion dam. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC News)

"Right from the beginning, we said we weren't opposed to the creation of the energy, what we we were opposed to is the destruction of that valley," he said.

"We can have some wind farm development. We can have some geothermal development. We can have some solar development .... we think natural gas is a viable option." 

"It's not an all or nothing approach."

The Mikisew Cree First Nation in Alberta also fears Site C will dry out UNESCO World Heritage site Wood Buffalo National Park, and Dene leaders in the Northwest Territories have called for the project to be stopped because water from the dam area flows into their territory.

Cancellation 'devastating': business owner

Further south, the McLeod Lake Indian Band argued the project should go ahead in order to meet the goals of "economic reconciliation."

The band has already signed agreements with BC Hydro providing economic benefits and jobs as Site C is constructed.

Montana Currie, who runs a car rental, lease and sales company in Fort St. John, says she will have to lay off employees if Site C is cancelled. "I think it would be devastating for our whole community." (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

"Economically, it would depress us big time," if the project were cancelled said Chief Harley Chingee.

"Let's move forward and make things happen."

The project's fate will also affect over 2,000 people currently working on the construction site, plus spin-off jobs in communities such as nearby Fort St. John.

"It's been massive. It's turned us around," said Montana Currie, who runs a vehicle rental, sales and leasing company in the city where she's lived since 1979. 

The City of Fort St. John, less than 15 kilometres away from the Site C dam, has not taken an official position on the project, despite thousands of construction jobs being linked to it. The city has instead focused on maximizing the benefits it receives should the project proceed. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

"My daughter ... she's a dental hygienist. She sees eight patients a day and at least three of those patients are related or somehow affected or working for Site C."

Currie said if Site C is cancelled, she would likely have to lay off staff members.

"I think it would be devastating for our whole community," she said.

"It just makes me very sad, because I think it is going to hurt us."

The full report can be found here.

With files from Megan Thomas, Greg Rasmussen and Wil Fundal.


Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at You can also send encrypted messages using Signal to 250.552.2058.