JAMES: Geothermal study heats up Site C dam debate

"There are alternative sources of power available at similar or somewhat higher costs, notably geothermal power. These sources, being individually smaller than Site C, would allow supply to better follow demand, obviating most of the early-year losses of Site C."

- summary, Joint Review Panel Report May 1, 2014

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How would you react if, based on dubious demand numbers, the provincial government were to announce plans for a hydro dam that would create a lake stretching from Horseshoe Bay to Abbotsford and wipe out everything in its path?

If you'd be unhappy about that, put yourself in the shoes of residents, farmers, businesses and small villages in the Peace River Valley that would be flooded forever by an 83-kilometre Site C reservoir.

The early-year dollar losses referred to in the broad-view federal and provincial Joint Panel Review of the proposed Site C project would, the panel says, accentuate "the inter-generational pay-now, benefit-later" effect.

Not said, was that the estimated $8-billion cost of the dam would add more than 20 per cent to the provincial capital debt of $41.1 billion projected by the Fraser Institute on June 3, 2014.

To extend that picture, not only would the $8 billion add 10 per cent to the overall provincial debt but it is common for dam projects to end up going si 12gnificantly over budget.

When it comes to asking whether current or future demand for power justifies rushing ahead with Site C, BC Hydro's own numbers make a weak argument.

In April of this year, economist Erik Andersen asked, "Is Site C needed, or just wanted by politicians in search of a photo-op?"Andersen noted that, in 2013, BC Hydro recorded sales of 7,417 gigawatt hours of power to unidentified "other" customers outside B.C. that did not fit into our own residential, commercial or light/heavy industrial categories. That number spiked from an average 2,000 gigawatt hours that has otherwise remained consistent from 2006 to today.

"Ranging from 44-54,000 GW hours, overall demand has also been consistent since 2006," said Andersen, "Growth in Hydro's total revenues is coming from rate increases, not from increased demand," he said.

So, if British Columbians cannot afford a mammoth project that isn't justified by the numbers and if, as noted in the JRP Review, Site C would "end agriculture on Peace Valley bottom lands" and "significantly affect the current use of land and resources" by First Nations, why are we still discussing it?

The panel answer was unequivocal: "The policy restraints that the B.C. government has imposed on BC Hydro have made some other alternatives unavailable."

What are the other alternatives?

After setting aside the small run-of-river projects from whom Hydro buys power at many times the cost at which Hydro could produce the power itself, the options are wind, solar, biomass and geothermal energy.

Generally speaking wind, solar and biomass are considerably smaller and/or more intermittent in production, while runof-river projects produce much of their power at times when BC Hydro has enough of its own production on hand.

For all those reasons and because it is a consistent source of heat and power, produced at between 4.5 and 9 cents per kilowatt hour, the potential for geothermal energy seems to be drawing ahead of the pack.

The business case appears to make sense for all British Columbians but especially for those who live in the Peace River District.

Geothermal energy can coexist with agriculture and wildlife habitat, increase production in lock-step with (verifiable) demand and provide jobs and power at affordable costs and reasonable end-user rates.

A fact sheet from the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association presents comparative data on the availability and cost of energy for all forms of alternative power at: cangea.ca/geothermal-factsheet. html.

CanGea believes that, given the go-ahead by federal and provincial governments, "5,000 MW of base-load geothermal power could be installed by 2025."

Although not all of that would be in British Columbia, it is ironic that one of the most promising "hotspots" for geothermal development just happens to straddle the B.C.-

Alberta border in much the same area as Site C - which brings us to two possible downsides of this energy source: the need to drill down thousands of metres while fracturing rock to release the heat trapped within and the seismic risk of that drilling.

As you likely know, "fracking" for oil and gas has attracted opposition that has centred on the fact that cocktails of toxic chemicals are added to the water which is then driven into rock under extreme pressure to release the fuels.

Yet, subject to examining the hundreds of drill sites underway in California, no chemicals are used to release geothermal energy; and if earthquakes are of concern then plans for a Site C reservoir should surely be abandoned in this siltingprone area.

The last point before continuing this discussion in another column is that there are many sound reasons why Peace River First Nations and landowners are seeking the courts' assistance to stop Site C. But if the welfare of the peoples of the Peace is of little consequence to our governments, then perhaps a Nov. 16 headline about geothermal energy in Roy L. Hales' online ECO Report might grab politicians' attention: BC may have a "trillion dollar" opportunity and it's not LNG. rimco@shaw.ca

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