Monday, March 24, 2008

Is Green Power 'Theft'?

My previous post reflects only a small part of the concern that's growing amongst many regarding the plan to privatize hydro-electric dams to extract power from BC rivers.

As with all "stories", there is another side. In my view the story of what's already in the works with these dams has been a hidden story, hidden because the rationale for use of our river resources in this way was never clearly disclosed to the citizens of this province. All the same, there is a case to be made and Murray, the author of this fair-minded, clear and informed counter-argument has agreed to have his views re-printed here

NOTE: I've added links to a few of his references and moved his footnotes into the body of the text, though in a smaller font.

As he says, he is open to comments, questions and argument. You can add your comments below (I've got the ball rolling with a couple of my own) but, if you prefer to communicate directly with Murray, you can send your message to him via me.



I am a proud part owner of the Upper Pitt River power project (I am not a principal of Run of River Power Corporation. Nor do I claim to be an expert in any of the areas I am going to talk about. The opinions are my own, and the facts I cite are the ones I have come across as an interested and concerned investor.). My thanks [for] the opportunity to provide another side of the story to “Power Play: The Theft of B.C.’s Rivers.”

As you watched the video [see previous post - JN], did you ask yourself “Is this a balanced review of the issue? Is it really all so bad?” Did you hear even one person who spoke from a different perspective? The impression that it gives is that there is no other reasonable point of view. In fact, I believe that properly understood most British Columbians would be in favour of the plan to construct seven “run of river” small hydro power plants on the tributaries of the upper Pitt River (north of Port Coquitlam, to the east of Vancouver).

First, by way of introduction, I don’t think I’d be a very good thief. My family and I are long-time friends and supporters of C.E.E.D.S and the Horse Lake Co-op, . . . . I have a degree in biology (marine and aquatic), and as a lawyer I was for many years the chair of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund for the West Coast Environmental Law Association. I now work for clients throughout B.C. who were injured in car or work accidents. I don’t claim to be the greenest guy around, but I do what I can. And I believe that the single greatest threat facing us and our planet is climate change. Not the cost of electricity.

There are big issues raised in this video, and I want to talk mostly about the Upper Pitt. If you believe that the private development of our natural resources is “theft”, then I probably couldn’t convince you otherwise. But wouldn’t that mean loggers are “stealing” our timber? Nor am I going to try to convince you that the government’s plan for our future electricity supply is the best solution possible. But you should give some thought to the alternatives to green power, which are (now) buying electricity from US coal fired thermal plants, and (in the future) projects such as Site C or nuclear. Finally, if you don’t like or trust B.C.’s government, I can’t say that I blame you. Their slashing of the benefits available to injured workers has caused untold misery and means I can no longer help WCB claimants. But this government was elected by the citizens of B.C., and has legally formulated an energy policy and procedure that Run of River Power Corporation (RoR) is following to the “t”. You can’t fairly call that “theft.”

But this project faces the rallying cry “Save Our Rivers, Stop the Upper Pitt Project”. So let’s talk about that.

RoR was started by a group of small investors from South Delta, and grew out of an old dream to bring environmentally sustainable power to B.C. in return for a fair return on investment. In 2003 RoR opened a small hydro plant at Brandywine Falls, just south of Whistler. Brandywine is the model for the seven plants proposed for the tributaries of the Pitt River. Let me tell you what you would see if you went there.

You drive up an old logging road into the sub alpine, at about 1,000 meters. Like the Pitt, almost all of the roads needed for this project, except the last short stretch down to the river, existed before. Like the Pitt, industrial use – logging and mining exploration - as well as recreational use goes back a century. They are both in lovely country, but you would not call it pristine. The head of the Brandywine project is a weir and a small holding pond, about the size of a large swimming pool. If you are familiar with the fish weir in Capilano Canyon, it is about one third the size of that. The weir holds back enough water to fill the 48” penstock (pipe) that runs underground down the mountain. It has a couple of other important functions. First, it is designed to fill with gravel, and to let it continue its natural migration downstream, at no loss to spawning beds or natural stream hydrology. Secondly, it is designed to allow a prescribed minimum flow to escape to ensure that there is no negative impact on the downstream environment (Mention is often made of Miller Creek, where a different system failed and the stream all but ran dry. The engineers assure us that could not happen on RoR’s projects, but I can’t get into that detail here. I am prepared to take follow up questions of this nature.).

Water flows from the stream in quantities depending on the natural water cycle (high in spring, low in winter; more run off means more electricity, and at times there is not enough water to generate any power - While the video suggest there is something wrong with following this natural cycle, the only alternative that would provide constant power throughout the year would be to dam the river.) and down about four kilometres of buried penstock laid several hundred meters away from the river. This has all been replanted, and five years later is returning to its natural look. At the bottom of the pipe, back beside the river, is a metal building the size of a medium barn. Inside are two pelton turbines, driving two generators. The water flows through the machines and out a short tailrace, and back into the river. There is no appreciable change in temperature or other physical property in the brief detour the water takes. Immediately below the tailrace you could not tell that the water had been diverted. A short power line connects the plant to the main grid that runs along the Whistler highway.

For what I believe is a minimum and acceptable amount of environmental interference, Brandywine produces about 40 million kilowatts of power per year, enough to power about 4,000 homes. That power is sold to B.C. Hydro for 5.7 cents per kilowatt hour, and you currently pay 6.7 cents per kilowatt hour for it. I’m no expert on power pricing, but that doesn’t sound too bad to me. The contract is for 20 years, at which time the water rights revert to B.C., though of course RoR would hope to negotiate an extension.

The Upper Pitt project would look like that, and produce like that, times seven. (Though “Save the Pitt” is the rallying cry, no one has yet explained to me in what way the projects would have any effect at all on the river itself (as opposed to limited effects on the tributaries.)) There are a few differences. First, while no fish are believed to live in Brandywine above the falls, there are definitely fish, including salmon, in some of the tributaries of the Pitt. In several streams they exist above the mill race, though in none as high up as the intakes (this is very steep country, which is why it is useful for power.) There is intensive ongoing research looking at the fish and other aquatic biota, and it is obvious that all these projects will have to be designed to avoid damaging any fishery. As you know, the federal Department of Fisheries is very protective of anadromous fish stocks, and it is simply not possible to build anything with any significant risk to salmon bearing streams. The Upper Pitt proposal is being reviewed under some of the most stringent and (from the developer’s perspective) onerous environmental and other guidelines in the world. The research is not finished, and in fact the public process which has drawn so much opposition is nothing more than an attempt to gather information from all interested parties to allow the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office to draw up the terms of reference by which a full environmental assessment must be performed by the proponents. While approval is by no means certain (this is far from the fait accompli that project opponents claim), I trust that the final decision will be based on science and logic and in accordance with the merits of the proposal.

A second difference is that the land around the Upper Pitt projects has been more heavily logged, and is more thoroughly crisscrossed by roads (Aerial photo). That is unfortunate, but real. And it means that very little new road and transmission corridor will have to be constructed.

A third difference, and perhaps the most controversial, is that the power line required to transport the electricity from the plants to the main grid will have to traverse a 4 kilometre section of Pine Cone – Burke Provincial Park. Because this park was only recently designated after a long public campaign, and because it is close to Vancouver, this part of the project it is especially contentious. Let me give you a couple of points that might balance your understanding of it. This is not the first time a park boundary has been changed to allow limited development. The NDP government – which recognized that setting aside 12% of the province for parks would create some unintended conflicts – was the first to use this tool. Secondly, the “development” consists of poles (placed by helicopter) and wire; it in no way impedes the movement of wildlife and, because it is a high elevation pass, is not a threat to the birds that are not there in the first place. Probably the most significant impact of a power line, as you will know yourself, is visual. But RoR says that you can’t have a visual impact if no one is there to see it, and in the two years the biologists have had a motion sensitive camera at the top of this remote pass, one person has passed through.

There are lots of other interesting and potentially controversial issues around this proposed project. This is but a snap shot of it, and if you have read this far then you have my gratitude for taking the time to try to understand another side of it. I am prepared to debate any of the points discussed, or any of the many others that I know exist around this project. But let me leave you with a few comments about an issue the video appears to dismiss: climate change.

I believe many ordinary people would agree that climate change is the number one problem facing our salmon, our wildlife, our parks, our world. Right now part of the electricity you are using is coming from coal fired plants in the US. Brandywine Creek offsets 13,680 tonnes of CO2 derived from natural gas or 32,680 tonnes derived from coal. The Pitt projects would offset 211,660 tonnes of CO2 derived from natural gas or 378,760 tonnes derived from coal. An average car produces about 2.4 tons of CO2 per year, so these projects effectively “take a lot of cars off the road”. Isn’t that kind of a trade-off worth at least a fair look?

So there’s a quick overview of the Upper Pitt. I didn’t talk about the jobs the projects will create, the revenue they will generate for the Province, or the myriad other environmental and land use issues (Check out a copy of RoR’s presentation to the public information sessions [PDF] for a more detailed discussion of the project.) You still might not like it, and you have every right to oppose it. I just ask that in doing so you try to keep an open mind and a civil tongue. And maybe ask the makers of “Power Play” and the Western Wilderness Committee why they are only telling one side of the story. Thanks for listening.

Murray Lott. March 17, 2008


Jeffrey Newman said...


I'm not informed enough to comment on a lot of this issue but am interested in helping to give this all a good airing.

One more general question that stands out is: if I, an interested and moderately-informed citizen, am ill-informed on this issue then, at the very least, the proponents of this project have done a lousy job of keeping me informed. And, with one of the main proponents being my provincial government, then it has a decidedly secretive/deceptive and undemocratic feel to it.

As for specifics, I have one question/observation: Where will all this power go? To the US? - and what will we in BC pay for it? I don't mind sharing resources but my impression is that, where the US is involved, it seems to be something of a one-way street; like our willingness to let go of a major part of our taxpayer-subsidized high-tech space industry to a corporation based in a country that wouldn't dream of allowing a Canada-based corp. to do the same with one of theirs.

Thanks again for opening this up.

Unknown said...

The Wilderness Committee has recently publish a four page educational report about the BC government's policy of handing over our rivers and streams to private power developers. The name of our report is "Power Grab" Here's a link...

Kubos said...

Dear Murray,
I'm ordinary person with good education. I heard and understood most of the arguments regarding the Global warming issue. My understanding is, that scientist are not sure what is causing global warming and what will be the consequences, because they don't have yet sufficient understanding of such complicated systems like earth climate.
In my view, it is irresponsible to convert value of everything to tons of CO2 and in the name of global warming develop last pieces of wilderness for profit without knowing the consequences.
If you care so much about the environment and BC people, why you just don't back up from Upper Pitt project when you are unable to convince public about project benefits?
I think there is not much difference in environmental damage between a coal plant in Alberta and the Upper Pitt project. I would even state, that Upper Pitt is causing more damage from wha i know. If you don't agree, convince me with some good research and arguments.

Anonymous said...

Polarization on this issue does no good. Some run of the river projects are good, some are bad.

As to the "ownership" of the rivers, I agree these projects need to be publicly owned, the same way we need to retake control of our forests,just like we need to repatriate B.C Hydro.

That said, we are in times of great change. Global warming is the issue of our time.

This society will get its power, just like an alcoholic will get his fix.

In my view, run of the river is far less harmful to the environment and global warming than biofuels, Site C expansion or continued fossil fuel burning.

It is time to make choices, time to put things in context, and in context there is a lot more to worry about from other forms of energy generation than there is from run of the river.

We must leap frog over carbon, go wind, go solar, go tidal, go geothermal, go lower consumption and yes go for run of the river in places where it doesn't have negative impacts; don't dismiss it out of hand.

Let's keep our eyes on the big picture. It's about global warming, it's about carbon.

Unknown said...

See and hear the best speech ever given in defence of BC's rivers and streams and in support of public power. Here is Rafe Mair at the Pitt Meadows public meeting on March 25, 2008. Pass it on. Post it everywhere. Here's the link...

Jeffrey Newman said...

Thanks. Joe.
I posted the video of Rafe's presentation today (March 28) - the post following this one.