This morning I turned on my radio to listen to Jon McComb do a piece on the Site C dam with his special guest “international energy expert” Robert McCullough, the Peace Valley Landowner Association’s hired gun from Oregon. Now from the promo I knew that the piece was going to be problematic but nothing prepared me for what was to come. This interview represents a frustrating trend I have observed in the media, in the recent past, and so I have written this post to discuss this trend.
Let’s start with what happened before the interview. In the promo for the piece (not included in the podcast but at 37:30 in the audio vault) Mr. McComb made this incredible statement:
Coming up we are going to talk with an international energy expert who wonders why we are building 10 billion dollar dams when renewables are cheaper and more dependable, we will talk to Robert McCullough coming up
You heard that right Mr. McComb repeated the unsupportable claim that renewables were “more dependable” than power from a dam. Now I should have stopped listening then and there because that should have alerted me of what nonsense was to come. For those wondering the only thing dependable about wind and solar power is that they will not be available for the vast majority of the year. On the winter solstice, in Vancouver, there will be 8 hours 29 minutes of daylight. That is not daylight available for solar power but total light from sunrise to sunset. On that cold day a fixed solar panel will be lucky to get 3-4 hours of useful exposure. If it is cloudy the solar panel might generate at 20-30% of its capacity for those 4 hours. While technically one can depend on the sun not shining that is not the sort of dependability I want to power a pediatric ventilator in the neonatal intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital. Sorry kids no oxygen for you today it is cloudy and wet.
Prior to getting his guest on the air Jon argued that the project should have gone to the BCUC before it was originally approved. This is a constant refrain from the anti-Site C crew and betrays a misunderstanding of the BCUC’s mandate. The BCUC is tasked with regulating B.C.’s energy utilities and is responsible for getting the best value for money for BC consumers. This is their mandate. They are not allowed to look at other factors. In introducing the Clean Energy Act the government of the day acknowledged that we weren’t going to get the cheapest possible power from Site C because they understood that there is a feature more important than cheap power: climate change. That is why they called it the Clean Energy Act and not the “Cheap Energy Act”. We can all agree that if we ignore climate change then Site C is a waste of money. Re-open Burrard Thermal, build inexpensive natural gas power plants and we can have the cheapest power on the planet…and 50 years from now when YVR is a boat launch and Vancouver has skyscrapers sticking out of the ocean at least I will have a water view from my house in the hills in Langley. Let’s say this again. The BCUC is not mandated to consider climate change. That is why the Clean Energy Act excluded the BCUC.
From there it only got worse. Because of connection problems Mr. McCullough wasn’t immediately available so Jon free-styled it for a bit. He repeated Mr. McCullough’s talking points about the cost of Site C adding his own flourishes about the budget of the project. The thing Jon forgot to mention is that Mr. McCullough always emphasizes the total cost of the dam while conveniently ignoring the massive amount of energy that will be generated. If you consider both the numerator and the denominator in the equation you discover that while Site C will be expensive, the average cost of the electricity produced by Site C will be below the current cost for wind and solar.
This brings us to a constant refrain from Mr. McCullough: if renewables prices keep dropping then one day (not today and not tomorrow but someday) wind will be cheaper than hydro. The problem is that his model depends on unsustainable decreases in the cost of wind and solar energy. Unsustainable because the bulk of the cost for these facilities is no longer just the panels and the turbines. The rate limiting step includes the cost to buy, transport and install the thousands of tonnes of concrete and rebar needed to hold the turbine in place and the kilometers of transmission lines needed to connect the facilities to the grid. This second cost is one Mr. McCullough stubbornly refuses to include in his calculations even though they are included in the costs of Site C. It is easy to argue that driving a car is cheaper than the bus if you qualify the statement by saying that the car costs don’t include gas, insurance or upkeep but that is not how the real world works. Site C includes a hefty price to connect to the grid. Mr. McCullough ignores that fact every time he discusses the cost of renewables and only includes the facility costs for the renewable facilities not the all-in costs.
Once Jon finally got Mr. McCullough on the line Mr. McCullough repeated his talking points first by introducing a straw man about what Dr. Jaccard had previously said about Site C and then going back to the availability and price of renewables (addressed above). He then talked about the what he called the zero-carbon options. [Author’s note: this is an error a lot of renewable supporters put out. Wind and solar aren’t zero-carbon options they are low-carbon options. Based on Deloitte’s report wind will generate more carbon per KWh than Site C under almost every scenario examined].
It took until 6:10 in the podcast for the most egregious statement. Mr. McCullough said that zero-carbon options were “a lot more dispatchable” than hydro. He qualified the statement by saying that he saw a train carrying wind turbines and that you could build turbines faster than hydro but that is not the point. As an energy expert Mr. McCullough must know what dispatchability means in energy conversations so to make that statement can represent nothing less than a deliberate attempt to muddy the conversation. I won’t call it unethical because he qualified the statement but it came as close to the boundary of bad ethics as is possible without crossing the line. As an analogy imagine a police officer testifying in court and saying “I saw the vehicle speeding” only to later qualify the statement to say that the driver was not actually exceeding the speed limit but just “speeding” along on the road at a healthy clip but slower than the speed limit. That is the level of language abuse in Mr. McCullough’s statement. Sure speeding can be used a number of ways but when a police officer uses the term in court it has an expected meaning. The same is true with the term dispatchability for “energy experts”.
Mr. McCullough then talked about the fact that the Site C Dam has a smaller reservoir than the Williston Reservoir and so therefore the Site C was “not a good storage dam“. This is a constant refrain from Mr. McCullough who has previously said that Site C was a run-of-the-river project. This is simply hogwash. Site C’s reservoir is indeed 0.4% of the volume of the Williston Reservoir but the Williston Reservoir is one of the 10 biggest reservoirs on the planet that doesn’t make every smaller dam on the planet a run-of-the-river project. Certainly, the Site C dam takes advantage of the Williston Reservoir to allow it to produce more electricity than a similarly-sized dam elsewhere but that is a plus not a minus. The reservoir is of sufficient size that even in drought years BC Hydro expects it will be able to produce 4000+ GWH of power a year.
Mr. McCullough then talked about how Washington and Oregon have 10 times more wind installed than BC therefore we should be able to install wind easily. McCullough likes the claim “that there is nothing complicated about implementing wind” and he must know that the nature of our geography does not make installing wind turbines easy. Unlike Washington and Oregon, which have a long, well-populated coastlines exposed to the steady winds from the Pacific Ocean, the population centers of BC are protected from those winds. Our major wind resources are along the exposed Pacific Coast (the west coast of Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and the North Coast) and in the Peace District along ridge-lines in the foothills.
Those trains that McCullough keeps reporting having seen don’t run to those locations. If you want to build a wind turbine on a ridge line in the Peace you can take the train part-way but then you have to put it on a road, which ends far from the ridge line. To get the supplies to the ridge line you need to either build a road or carry them up there by helicopter. Moreover, a wind turbine isn’t simply stuck on a hill, it is planted there using massive amounts of concrete and rebar. All those heavy materials have to be moved up that mountainside as well. Finally the turbine is only of use if it is connected to the transmission system. That means building transmission lines up and over the mountains. This is the entire point of my previous post about LCOE. Mr. McCullough looks at facilities in Washington and Oregon and pretends that we can build at a similar cost in the Peace. This is simply wrong.
This is a common thread in McCullough’s presentations. He takes the general case in other areas and then pretends that it will apply in the particular case of BC while completely ignoring the specifics that apply in BC. You can’t ignore the limitations imposed by British Columbia’s geography when trying to talk about renewable resources. Our coastal climate means solar only works in a few interior locations. Wind is found far from population centers and our geothermal is locked in hard rock formations in the mountains. All this he ignores as he puts the sunniest light on the story while reassuring us that we can always rely on our American cousins if we need more energy in the future. The Clean Energy Act was intended to ensure we don’t need to depend on the US to keep us warm in winter. I think we should keep it that way.
As a regular listener to CKNW I cannot express how disappointed I have been about the way this project has been reported. Either consciously or unconsciously reporters are not asking the obvious questions and are credulously repeating demonstrably wrong anti-Site C talking points. A host can be excused for quoting misinformation in context but to repeat that misinformation repeatedly is very problematic. No reputable energy expert has every said that wind energy is more dependable than hydro. This is not a matter for debate. Wind is notoriously variable while water behind a dam is completely predictable. Shortages of water in reservoirs due to drought can be forecasted weeks in advance while changes in wind are so common that there are any number of common expressions about change being in the wind. For evidence-based environmental decision-making to have a chance misinformation has to be corrected and on topics of public interest we often rely on the fourth estate to call out bad information before it become endemic. In BC our fourth estate is failing in this task and this program is simply one example of that happening.
It has been pointed out to me that my first version of this post was overly hard on the CKNW staff. That was not intended to be the case and so I have edited the piece to be less inflammatory and to stick to my point in a more generic way using this interview simply as one example of a frustrating trend.