On the UBC Site C Dam assessment report and fighting climate change: Part I

Like many of you I obtained a copy of the most recent report out of the UBC Program on Water Governance on the Site C Dam titled “Reassessing the Need for Site C” (Link to the full study).  As many of my readers know I have had a strong personal interest in energy policy having written a lot about what it will take to achieve our climate change goals in a post-Paris Agreement future. My recent blog post  On fighting climate change and what it will mean for BC/Canada’s energy politics looks at the topic and demonstrates a strong need for a lot of extra electricity supply if we are to meet our national climate change goals. As a consequence I was interested in what these UBC experts (okay only one is from UBC) had to say on the topic. As I will discuss in this blog post I was more than a little disappointed in what I found. To achieve their conclusion that Site C is not needed the authors dismissed a lot of respected research that suggests that we will need additional electricity in our fight against climate change. The problem is they did so without presenting a strong rationale.

Let’s start by directly addressing the topic at hand. On page 36 of the assessment the authors recognize that the literature exists assessing projected electricity needs under a Paris Agreement future. Specifically they write:

As shown, the DDPP predicts an increase of 800 TWh/year in electricity generation by 2050, of which 440 TWh/year is projected to be new large-scale hydroelectric. The TEFP predicts an increase of 1550 TWh/year by 2050, of which 460 TWh/year is projected to be new large-scale hydroelectric. For context, this is equivalent to developing ninety (90) Site C Projects in Canada by 2050.

Notwithstanding their differences, both studies find that meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over the reference case are accompanied by substantial increases in electricity requirements, which would be met mainly by an unprecedented build out in large-scale hydroelectric development across Canada.

These studies suggest that, in a low-carbon future, the Site C Project would inevitably be needed even if BC Hydro has overestimated needs in the short- to medium-term. To explore this proposition, it is worth examining some of the key assumptions in the two studies, including in relation to projections of total electricity requirements, as well as hydroelectric requirements.

They then spend the next 17 pages trying to discount the conclusions of the Government of Canada’s Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy, the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) and Trottier Energy Futures Project (TEFP). I must admit it takes a certain amount of hutzpah for these three authors to claim they are better informed than the Government of Canada, a global collaboration of energy research teams and the Canadian Academy of Engineering, respectively but I appreciate gumption so let’s see how they did. I will not be addressing GDP/oil production sections as they are outside my area of expertise but will point out that others have already challenged their assumptions on this topic.  Moreover since I am not writing a novella, and have a real job, I won’t be able to assess the entire section in this one blog post.

Electricity Prices: The authors challenge the DDPP  and TEFP on energy prices. They do so by suggesting that demand could be lower in 2050 due to higher prices which could result in consumers choosing to not switch fuels. As discussed in the report the DDPP does indeed suggest that rising prices will result in energy efficiency changes that represent 100 MT of reduced emissions but the author’s economic argument apparently ignores the anticipated regulatory requirements (and government mandates) that will be placed on consumers as part of our governments’ climate change policies. BC has already signed onto the International Zero-Emission Vehicle Alliance and has a carbon tax and the City of Vancouver has introduced its Renewable City Strategy. These approaches present direct challenges to the authors’ points. Put simply part of the process of fighting climate change involves making fossil fuels (and energy) more expensive and then limiting consumer choice so they can’t shift to lower cost (but dirtier) alternatives. That is a feature of the system not a bug that can be ignored.

Demand-side management: okay I am going to admit they have me confused in this one. They start by pointing out that DDPP and TEFP both apply demand-side measures then suggest that because the reports don’t spend enough time discussing the contributions of the various demand-side measures (which in the Canadian context almost always means regulatory change) that they won’t work? There is a robust literature demonstrating that when regulatory change is initiated it can accomplish a policy goal; so a huge discussion of this topic seems pretty unnecessary. For those wishing to challenge me on this topic try buying some leaded gas for your car or re-filling your air conditioner with CFCs then get back to me.

Distributed generation and Nuclear: Both these sections go into balancing which technology might be best for future energy generation but neither directly address the electricity demand figures, which is the critical point of consideration in this section.

Solar PV: I have discussed solar photovoltaic electricity on this blog a number of times (most recently here) and there is a simple reason that the plans for BC do not include a massive upgrade in solar PV, the term is “solar insolation”.  Industrial solar is simply not on the table for most of BC because our combination of climate and position on the globe precludes it.

Wind: The study argues that wind energy costs will decline and should therefore be assumed to represent a greater percentage of future energy supply than even the overly optimistic estimates presented in DDPP and TEFP. This argument misses a critical consideration involved in building wind infrastructure in BC: transmission of the generated energy. Later in the report the authors bemoan the cost of transmission lines for Site C but for some reason apparently believe that wind will not need similar transmission lines. I have already written a post describing a combined wind and pumped hydro project of the type suggested by the assessment and can assure my readers that the costs the authors of the assessment are hoping to achieve are not achievable once you inject transmission requirements into the mix. You can’t argue against Site C because of expensive transmission costs on one hand while ignoring the same issue when talking about massively dispersed wind generation.

Pumped Hydro: The authors argue that the absence of discussions of pumped hydro storage at existing hydroelectric facilities represents a fatal flaw in DDPP and TEFP but that argument is problematic. Pumped hydro doesn’t represent additional capacity, it represents storage of energy generated somewhere else. Pumped hydro simply takes energy generated by some other process (wind, solar etc.) and stores it in the form of water. Moreover, there is a reason existing hydro facilities don’t include a pumped hydro capacity, that reason is that pumped hydro needs reservoirs and our existing dams are built in places where reservoirs downstream are mostly not practical.

As for upgrades at existing facilities, absent a few already planned upgrades the existing systems are pretty much at capacity. For most of our dams it is not the number of generator units that represents the limiting feature but the size of the reservoirs behind the dams (amount of water to be converted into electricity). The whole reason Site C is being added to the existing Peace dam network is to increase the reservoir volume behind dams in BC.

Large-scale hydroelectric – Wait a Minute…: It was at this point in the exercise that I recognized the apparent bait and switch that had occurred in this section of the report. The section started with a couple half-hearted attempts to challenge the electricity demand requirements set out in the DDPP and TEFP but quickly descended into challenging how that needed electricity would be generated. In doing so the authors appear to be distracting the reader as to the actual point of those reports: that if we are to meet our climate change goals we will need substantially more electricity by 2030 and 2050. If you continue reading the section you discover that the authors never actually go back to challenge the electricity requirement numbers from DDPP or TEFP They simply migrate to a section on low-carbon electrification in BC while completely ignoring DDPP or TEFP; then 12 pages later they come up with a conclusion:

The increases in electricity requirements in the DDPP and TEFP, which are on the order of 130% and 220% above current requirements by 2050, are not defensible based on the information provided in these analyses.

But their assessment never actually challenged the energy requirement numbers from these two reports. They essentially side-stepped that entire topic. Somehow they just forget to challenge the underlying assumptions of DDPP and TEFP after page 42. It is like they believe that after the five pages of discussion about generation alternatives and nine pages of discussions about BC Hydro projections that readers will completely miss the fact that they never actually presented any solid information that challenges the overall electricity demand numbers presented in DDPP and TEFP. They challenge the suggestions of how the electricity will be generated (and in my opinion do this poorly as discussed above) but never actually show why the electricity requirement numbers presented by DDPP and TEFP for a post-Paris Agreement energy environment “are not defensible”.

To repeat, the conclusions of DDPP and TEFP  that in order to achieve our climate change goals we will need to increase our electricity supply on the order of 130% and 220% above current requirements by 2050 remain unchallenged in this assessment. This is almost exactly what I have written previously on the topic. The numbers haven’t gone away and this report makes no significant effort to show otherwise.

Unfortunately I am running out of time to finish this blog post as my lunch break is well over so I will not go into their examination of the MKJA MK Jaccard and Associates Inc  (Jaccard) Report at this time (possibly more on this in a later blog post). I will point out, however, that the studies being covered in that section pre-date the Paris Agreement and in some case completely underestimate more current estimates. As an example, the authors cite a BC Hydro load forecast that predicts that electric vehicles will make up only 13% of the private vehicle fleet in 2036. If that is the case then BC has no chance of meeting its climate change goals. Under BC’s zero emission pledge  we are supposed to be 100% zero emission vehicles by 2050 and given the lifetime of the average vehicle if we are only at 13% in 2036 we stand zero chance of being at 100% in 2050. Moreover afterall that the author’s still agree with the Jaccard report conclusion while only wondering about its actual timeline:

based on the MKJA study, deep reductions in British Columbia’s GHG emissions would result in substantially more electricity demand. However, the extent of this increase in demand and its timing remain highly uncertain.

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3 Responses to On the UBC Site C Dam assessment report and fighting climate change: Part I

  1. peanutflower says:

    I’m not a scientist or anyone remotely learned in energy or anything like that, but even I can see that a report that condemns, on the one hand, Site C, and on other hand, talks about switching from fossil fuel to almost solely electric power has a logical problem. Not to mention the apparent conflict of interest of two of the authors, as pointed out in the ResourceWorks commentary on this report.


  2. Pingback: Site C study nothing but political skullduggery pretending to be academic analysis - The American Energy News : The American Energy News

  3. Pingback: More on that UBC Site C study – I rebut a rebuttal | A Chemist in Langley

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