By now my opinion on Site C is well known. Having looked at the pros and cons of the project I feel that the pros outweigh the cons and given my desire to see Canada meet our Paris-Agreement goals I see Site C as the most cost-effective and least environmentally damaging way to make that happen. I did not come to this position lightly. I have written about renewable energy options since starting this blog in 2014 and my blog post from 2015 Starting a Dialogue – Can we really get to a “fossil fuel-free BC first investigated what it would take for BC to go fossil fuel-free. Shortly after the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016 I wrote a follow-up On Pragmatic Environmentalism, the Paris Agreement and where do we go from here? detailing our future energy needs in a post-Paris BC. In the time since I first wrote on this topic many have, through their own paths, come to the same conclusions as me. Most recently SFU Energy Sustainability Economist Dr. Mark Jaccard wrote an article that pretty much mirrors what I have written. This reassures me that I am not an outlier, but rather in very good company.
I have taken tremendous flack for my stand on this topic. One political operative broadcast my work phone number to his followers, likely to try and get me fired or to pressure me into not discussing Site C. That individual, as well as a well-known internet “journalist”, have also gone out of their way to impugn my name and that of my employer in the hopes of getting me to stop blogging about Site C. They have repeatedly claimed that I am getting paid to blog about Site C because my employer (a large engineering firm) does some work for the government.
Anyone who knows me, knows my work has nothing to do with Site C and to the best of my knowledge my employer has not worked for BC Hydro. Now I might be wrong, we might have worked on a bridge design or something like that, but that has never been relayed to me. I’m not in the division that does work with the government except when I do contract work refereeing technical reports on contaminated sites. The reason my employer allows me to blog on Site C is because it is one file upon which I have no conflicts of interest. I have committed to my employer that I will not blog on topics where we do work and I enjoy my job too much to put my employment at risk for my hobby. I do not blog on company time, but thanks to a flexible work schedule can go off the books pretty much any time I want to and as the need requires.
By now you are probably asking the same question my wife keeps asking: why bother blogging about a topic that gives you nothing but grief. Well the answer is that I care deeply about ensuring we make good decisions for my kids’ futures. I care deeply in the concept of evidence-based environmental decision-making and frankly I care because I hate the idea that a decision of this importance is being influenced by a tsunami of misinformation being spewed by the opponents of the dam. Honestly, these folks care only about killing the dam and are apparently willing to do whatever it takes to advance their cause. They represent everything that is wrong about environmental decision-making in BC these days. Consider some examples?
Let’s start with a conspiracy theorist who appears hell-bent on proving that Site C is actually part of a cold-war plan to re-direct Canada’s vital inland waters to feed America’s voracious appetite for fresh water. The plan, ironically enough created by my employer back in the early 1960’s, was also shelved in the 1960’s when it was realized that it would require hundreds of dams, thousands of kilometers of trenching through the Rocky Mountains and trillions of dollars of expense. Apparently Lyndon LaRouche, that bastion of sanity, tried to resurrect the project in the 1980’s and that is enough for the conspiracy theorists out there to claim that I am being paid to promote Site C.
From the same source we get another completely ridiculous argument that the area to be flooded by Site C could feed a 1 million people. I address this argument in a blog post but to summarize the author took a vegetable study produced by BC Hydro for the original Site C proposal. That report said the area to be flooded, if farmed intensely, could provide vegetables for 266,000 people as part of a balanced diet. She then extrapolated assuming that farmers were going to carry out industrial-scale agriculture on islands in the middle of the river and on sloped riverbanks to announce that the entire area to be flooded could produce enough to feed 1 million people vegetables as part of a balanced diet. Since that claim wasn’t wacky enough she has since expanded her original claim to to one where the same land would feed 1 million people with all the calories for their entire diet. I have no clue how she made that last leap but it is not defensible in any form and as I present in my blog post runs contrary to a generation of agricultural research. That hasn’t stopped the opponents of Site C from repeating the claim endlessly.
As for other examples let’s look at Dr. Harry Swain who I debated on the radio on this topic. During our debate after professing strong interest in the field of climate change he then suggested that we shouldn’t take any action to fight climate change until there was
large agreement and commitment to a multi-multi hundred billion dollar transformation of the world economy.
As someone who professed to care about climate change he appeared completely unaware that the Paris Agreement represented exactly such an agreement. When reminded of the Paris Agreement he ended his presentation with the line about climate change
I think it is the most serious thing facing the world and no would be happier than me if there were some teeth and dollars and genuine multi-national commitment behind the Paris Accord, so far there isn’t and against the history of 20-40 years of disappointing government action I would like to wait and see somebody put their money where their mouth is.
The problem is that Canada and much of the world is doing exactly that on this file. The Clean Energy Act (CEA) was the provincial government putting their money where their mouth is and Dr. Swain completely ignores that fact while suggesting we should sit on our hands and let other countries do the work. In doing so he also ignores that Alberta, Washington and California are also putting their money where their mouth is. BC once led the field on climate change but now we are part of a global movement to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and to suggest that BC should stop just as the rest of the world is passing us seems problematic from my perspective.
Talking about the CEA brings us to the Peace Valley Landowner Association (PVLA) and their imported expert Robert McCullough who presented a submission to the BCUC. Now the PVLA was very proud of Mr. McCullough and his work. Proud enough to have him do a press conference to present his results. The problem is McCullough appears not to understand what the CEA says and what it means. Section 1 of the CEA defines “clean or renewable resource” to include “hydro” thus by definition under the CEA, Site C is a clean or renewable resource and thus is included under Section 2(c) of the CEA [the 93% clean or renewable resource requirement]. In his submission McCullough’s argues (on page 45) that Site C would be considered “dirty” under the CEA. This is demonstrably and categorically wrong and has no merit. He further concludes that BC can only generate 500 GHW from Site C because it is “dirty”. That is, of course, completely wrong and anyone who had bothered to read the CEA would know this. This begs the question, did he bother to read the Act he keeps purporting to cite?
In his report McCullough relies heavily on Lazard’s analysis of levelized cost of energy (LCOE). The problem with Lazard’s LCOE is that it is consistently lower than the other bodies that evaluate this value, including the IPCC. Moreover, there are strong critiques of the LCOE approach which is heavily biased by factors not applicable in British Columbia. Our geography and the location of our wind, geothermal and solar resources are not reflected in Lazard’s numbers. As an example, our potential wind resource is primarily located far away from existing infrastructure (highways or rail lines) and connections to provincial transmission systems. BC Hydro considered these additional costs in their Electricity Supply Options research and got very different numbers than McCullough. When confronted by generic Lazard numbers and site-specific BC analyses, I am wont to trust the figures that acknowledge local or site-specific considerations. To give an example, imagine you were given two costs estimates
One to build a wind turbine near the highway in Southern California using non-union labour and
The second to build a wind turbine 20 km from the nearest roadway on a ridge line in the Peace District.
McCullough’s analysis imagines that both estimates would generate exactly the same price estimate. I don’t know about you but I find that very troubling. By relying on Lazard LCOE calculations to estimate the future cost of renewables in BC McCullough transposes US costs on BC geographies. This is why BC Hydro used Canadian experts familiar with BC conditions to supply costs in their Electricity Supply Options report. Personally, I think I will trust the Canadian cost estimates to those provided by an American consultant.
One of McCullough’s biggest arguments against Site C is that the Northwest Power Pool has a reserve margin that can be used to address any electricity shortage in BC. As I have pointed out previously much of that margin depends on access to natural gas generation in the Plains States and ignores California’s plan to mothball its nuclear generation capacity or Alberta’s plan to mothball coal. The reason the Clean Energy Act requires British Columbia be energy independent is because we cannot control how other jurisdictions decide to fight climate change. McCullough argues that BC should become utterly dependent on the goodwill of other jurisdictions to supply us with their surplus power. Expecting other jurisdictions to have surplus power in a post-Paris Agreement world is a risk he (as an American) may be willing to take because he will never have to pay out if the risk goes bad. The BC government looked at that risk and decided that keeping BC self-sufficient in energy was a good idea. I agreed with them when they enacted the CEA and I agree with that premise now.
You can see my frustration on this file. The opponents of Site C are literally making things up. They promote scientifically impossible concepts. They ignore years of work on the renewable energy file in BC and when they can’t find a local expert to say what they want to hear they import outsiders who appear unaware of what our legislation actually says while peddling generic US numbers when more precise Canadian numbers are available for everyone to see. Evidence-based environmental decision-making relies on individuals being willing to stand up for the data. I will continue to do this even as those who disagree with me choose to do otherwise. For me to do any less is simply not going to happen.