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Low snowpack equals electricity imports

May 27, 2010

It turns out that trucking snow from Manning Park to Cypress Bowl for the Winter Olympics was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the low snowpack conditions B.C. is seeing this year.  Still to come this summer are the potential for drought, forest fires and low reservoir levels behind BC Hydro’s hydroelectric mega dams.

Environment Minister Barry Penner recently confirmed the seriousness of the situation in a May 7, 2010 media release which detailed the low snowpack conditions around the province. 

And although there is cause for optimism if rainfall through May and June is normal or above normal, there is also much cause for concern.

Here are a couple of key excerpts from Minister Penner’s media release:

The peak of the winter’s snowpack has accumulated and the melt has begun. Snowpacks have declined in most areas during April as a result of drier than normal weather. With the exception of high-elevation areas on Vancouver Island and the South Coast, snowpacks across B.C. are all below normal. Snowpacks in the South Interior (Nicola, Okanagan, Similkameen, West Kootenay, East Kootenay, Lower Columbia) and in the Northwest Interior (Skeena, Nass) are substantially below normal.

The snowpack information indicates significant potential for low stream flows and water supply shortages to develop in these areas during the summer. Precipitation over the next month will determine the likelihood and extent of drought over the summer.

….  The low snowpack and smaller-than-normal snowmelt runoff are likely to be reflected in lower-than-normal lake and reservoir levels, lower-than-normal recharge of groundwater aquifers and lower-than-normal river levels during summer.

Snow conditions at the end of the winter comprise only part of the peak flow and water supply forecast picture. Weather during May and June has a large influence. To reduce the potential for summer low-flow or drought problems, rainfall during May and June will need to be at or above normal.

Scott Simpson from the Vancouver Sun and Tom Fletcher from Black Press have both written well-informed articles about B.C.’s “below average” snowpack levels and the implications thereof — particularly with respect to BC Hydro’s ability to generate electricity.  

As Scott Simpson said in a May 15, 2010 Vancouver Sun article: “BC Hydro is preparing to increase its electricity imports this summer, after a relatively dry winter deposited less snow than usual in watershed areas across much of the province.”

As Simpson also pointed out:  

Lower reservoirs mean less water is available for electricity generation, which means Hydro will have to go more frequently to the western North American trading market to purchase power from producers in other jurisdictions so that the demands of its B.C. customers can be satisfied….  Even in an average year, Hydro is a net importer of power, so a below-average water supply means increased reliance on imports.

Moreover, as Tom Fletcher points out in his Black Press article, not only was last year was the ninth year out of the last 10 in which BC Hydro has been a net importer of electricity, the electricity that BC Hydro is importing is mostly coming from coal-fired generators in Alberta and the USA.

As Fletcher states:

According to B.C. Hydro, the fiscal year just ended was another year of net power imports, with 4,600 gigawatt-hours purchased. That makes nine years out of the last 10 when there were net imports, and this year it appears we will again rely on power from Alberta or the U.S.

Both of those are primarily coal sources.

With this current year clearly shaping up to be another net electricity importation year for BC Hydro, it means that BC Hydro will have been a net electricity importer in a full 10 out of the last 11 years.   An alarming situation to say the least and one that isn’t being made any better by climate change. 

As Tom Fletcher notes in his Black Press article:

Is there a long-term trend toward warmer, drier weather in B.C.? Pine and spruce beetle outbreaks across the Interior certainly suggests that there is, and so does the northward shift of cedar growth along the coast.

There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from all of the evidence noted above: B.C. is clearly no longer able to produce as much electricity as we consume.  

BC Hydro’s multibillion dollar program to upgrade and renovate the province’s aging power generating infrastructure, along with the province’s aggressive electricity conservation efforts, will certainly help squeeze more power from less water. 

Building the Site C dam will also improve BC Hydro’s ability to generate electricity and produce — as Tom Fletcher puts it — “a third as much electricity as the W.A.C. Bennett Dam with a reservoir one 20th the size.”

However, Site C is also a very expensive proposition, with a price tag in excess of $6.6 billion, and it still has to pass through the full scrutiny of a lengthy environmental assessment process.  

Moreover, Site C will in all likelihood be the last mega dam ever built in this province even though our population will continue to grow, as will our need for electricity generated from clean, renewable energy sources. 

The experience of the past decade has clearly demonstrated that we need to augment the finite amount of electricity that can be generated by the province’s network of hydroelectric dams.   

Meeting B.C.’s growing electricity needs means that, in addition to expanding our renewable energy supply, we also need to diversify it by tapping into our province’s abundance of renewable wind, run-of-river, geothermal, biomass, wave, tidal and solar energy. 

In low water years like those BC Hydro has experienced during the past decade, renewable green energy sources like run-of-river, wind and biomass offer a new, predictable supply of firm green energy that we can depend on instead of having to import coal-fired electricity from outside of the province.  

The generating capacity from renewable run-of-river and wind energy projects would also enhance BC Hydro’s ability to turn off its mega dam generators and store water in its reservoirs for later use — and, again, without resorting to coal-fired imports as is the case at present.

We’ve seen the shape of things to come, and preparing now for the clean electricity needs of tomorrow is not only prudent it’s also long overdue given BC Hydro’s decade of net electricity imports.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Modred permalink
    May 28, 2010 2:07 pm

    Another successive year when Mother Nature (re-Global Warming) plays havoc with BC’s energy supply. Another year when BC Hydro must go to the open market and pay through the nose to purchase brown electricity from outside the province, and untapped green renewable energy remains outside our grasp.

    How many times must we get hit over the head before we start to realize that we cannot rely solely on BC Hydro’s maxed out generation capacity to supply our growing energy demands? I guess when rolling brownouts become the norm the good citizens of BC will come to realize that complacency and uninformed resistance to anything new and different has put us in this untenable situation.


  1. BC Hydro increases electricity imports « The BCCGE Livewire

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