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Meanwhile, back in the BCCGE mailroom…

March 13, 2012

Although it’s been fairly quiet on the green energy front for the past few months, the boys in the BCCGE mailroom have not been idle. They’ve been actively monitoring the various goings on in the energy sector and working through the piles of accumulated material tying up prime desktop real estate.

Meanwhile, the usual anti-green-energy suspects have been doing… well, exactly what you’d expect them to be doing: Spreading misinformation about everything from run-of-river projects to smart meters.

But what caught the eye of the mailroom boys this week was the Wilderness Committee’s latest overblown FOI media stunt.

This time, Gwen Barlee and her WCWC crew worked with an apparently pliable reporter at the Vancouver Sun (Larry Pynn) and combed through 3,000 pages of FOI documents to find a small handful of selective quotes they could take out of context and build a sensationalized story around.

Of course, the boys in the BCCGE mailroom don’t have access to the 3,000 pages of FOI material that Barlee, the WCWC and their reporter friend at the Sun reportedly have, so we can’t provide the missing context for their cherry-picked quotes.  But based on previous experience we know that context is everything.

That’s what got the boys in the BCCGE mailroom wondering what the article in the Sun might have looked like if all of the cherry-picked, out-of-context FOI quotes were removed along with Gwen Barlee’s opinions and the various editorial comments inserted by reporter Larry Pynn.

When you remove all of that dubious material, what’s left over tells a very different story from the one cooked up by Barlee and Pynn.

The real story explains how run-of-river projects are required to ramp water levels up and down gradually when generating clean energy so that any young fish living downstream are not suddenly stranded or cut off from a river’s flow.

This is an operating parameter that run-of-river projects work with and there are regulations governing how ramping is to be carried out.

That doesn’t mean that accidents will never occur or that equipment problems can never happen. That would be contrary to Murphy’s Law and wholly unrealistic.  Accidents do happen and lessons are always learned from them.

There is also simple human error to be taken into account — something that can certainly be mitigated against but never completely eliminated from any sphere of life.

However, none of it comes anywhere close to the skewed picture of rampant death and destruction painted by Gwen Barlee and Larry Pynn.  Not even close.

So, while the boys in the BCCGE mailroom wait and watch to see if Gwen Barlee or the Sun make their 3,000 pages of FOI documents available to the public, we’ve taken a stab at rewriting the Sun article as it might have looked minus all of the dubious FOI material and minus the opinions masquerading as facts.

Here’s what that might have looked like:

Wilderness Committee tries to make mountain out of mole hill… again!

Gwen Barlee, whose Wilderness Committee group has been a leading critic of independent run-of-river projects over the years, is calling for a moratorium on further approvals of such projects and the laying of federal charges where fish and fish habitat have suffered.

“You have poor planning and low environmental standards,” claimed Barlee. “These projects shouldn’t be situated in fish habitat at all.”

Adam Lewis, president of Ecofish Research Ltd., a leading consultant to industry and government on run-of-river projects, said there is a potential for power plants to ramp down water levels too quickly and leave young fish stranded and dead for kilometres downstream.

The provincial and federal governments work together to set regulations for run-of-river projects, including general minimum stream flows and specific rates for short-term fluctuations – known as ramping.

Run-of-river projects produce electricity by diverting river water – typically in a steep canyon – and sending it through an underground pipe to a powerhouse. The water is then returned to the river.

During the ramping process, water levels rise and fall in the river, but power producers are supposed to ensure these changes are made gradually – a maximum 2.5 centimetres per hour to prevent stranding of fry that inhabit the shallow edges of the river downstream.

Ramping may occur for reasons such as the shutdown of a power plant for maintenance or an unanticipated failure.

Julia Berardinucci, the south coast’s director of resource management for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations says improved plant design standards and monitoring of operations along with continuing “learn-as-we-go” revisions to ramping guidelines are all improving the situation.

“The potential risk is always there for all the plants…,” she said from her Surrey office. “We’re seeing some incidents occurring, but relative to the number of [power] plant operations, it’s obviously a point of opinion as to whether it’s having obvious impacts.”

The government’s regulation of such projects and industry’s response are both improving, she noted.

For example, Innergex is conducting a formal five-year monitoring program to determine the effects on fish and to guide modifications as required.

“Innergex is fully committed and responsive to address these issues and is trying its best to avoid any incident,” said Richard Blanchet, the company’s senior vice-president.

Blanchet said that almost five per cent of the $130-million cost of the Ashlu Creek project is related to meeting ramping requirements.

Innergex did encounter a problem after its 50-megawatt Ashlu plant started operations in November 2009, but has improved operations to ensure compliance.

Matt Kennedy, the company’s vice-president of environment, described the May 8, 2010 event involving 166 salmon and trout fry that became stranded due to rapidly dropping water levels as an “unfortunate incident” that occurred in the early stages of the commissioning of the plant.

“We don’t feel it’s acceptable for our company to have those sorts of things going on. So we’ve changed our policies and procedures,” he said. “We essentially operate the plant differently.”

Innergex also developed 60,000 square metres of spawning channels below the dam as compensation for construction of the plant.  The company estimates these channels produce 100,000 fry per year.

“We’re very pleased with that, it’s a very important part of our project,” Kennedy said.

Clean Energy B.C. executive director Paul Kariya acknowledge that it is “probably for sure that every hydro project ever developed in B.C. has killed fish,” be it private or public. “Sadly all developments like this have impacts.”

The run-of-river industry says its projects have fewer environmental impacts on fish than traditional BC Hydro dams. They also do not emit the greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide associated with power production from burning fossil fuels.

“Isn’t the bigger question, how are we going to power our province in the future? We need electricity and this demand will grow in excess of what we can do through conservation,” Kariya said.

In collaboration with industry and the B.C. government, the federal fisheries department is developing a ramping guide to reduce impacts to fish and fish habitat and developing monitoring procedures to improve the assessment of impacts from run-of-river projects.

At present, there are 50 private hydro projects in operation and selling power to BC Hydro, half of them in the south coast region and built over several decades.

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