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Home is a source of power

2 February, 2010

For me one of the most interesting observations in West Coast Environmental Law’s “Emerging Solutions on Clean, Green Power” Dialogue came from former Hupacasath Chief, Kekinusuqs (Judith Sayers), when she suggested that every community should be self-sufficient in energy generation.  Her comments are included in our video of excerpts from the Dialogue – but the important phrase is a bit hard to hear.  Here’s what she said:

… I really think that every community in this province needs to be independent electrically.  There’s going to be disasters that happen, and if Vancouver Island is cut off from the Mainland, if there’s an earthquake, there’s not going to be enough power on Vancouver Island to power everybody.

To date there’s been some discussion about the importance of keeping independent power locally owned and controlled.  Indeed, the recommendations that West Coast and other environmental groups developed emphasize giving priority to independent power projects (IPPs) owned by communities and First Nations; however, perhaps it’s just me, but I haven’t heard much mention for local self-sufficiency in the context of the IPP/green power debate.  There’s been lots of discussion about provincial self-sufficiency, and debate about if we should export our power from BC, to whom, and under what conditions, but little discussion about power exported from one region of the province to another.  And that’s the point of West Coast’s Dialogues for Innovation Series – to listen to different perspectives and get new ideas. 

So in the spirit of dialogue, not debate, let’s think about the idea of energy self-sufficiency.  Community energy self-sufficiency is not an issue directly considered in the Recommendations for Responsible Clean Electricity Development in BC and the notion immediately reframes the IPP debate. 

Blog.JPG_.jpgFirst of all, a focus on self-sufficiency highlight the huge inequities in power generation between regions of the province.  BC Hydro is considering building the Site C Dam in order to meet BC’s future electrical needs – a project which is opposed by the Peace Valley Environmental Association and the West Moberly First Nation (see their Paddle for the Peace joint website).  The Peace River already has two dams – the W.A.C. Bennett Dam and the Peace Generating Station – which collectively generate about 3,424 MW of electricity.  This region is already generating more than enough power to be self-sufficient. 

BC Hydro’s website claims that the Lower Mainland has “several hydroelectric generation stations”, but a closer review reveals that the largest of these is located near Lillooet – not ordinarily considered to be part of the Lower Mainland.  Burrard Power is the only generator actually located in Metro Vancouver and it’s being shut down.  Quite aside from whether these generators can properly be considered Lower Mainland generators, they collectively produce slightly more than 1000 MW, well below the region’s electrical consumption.  Vancouver Island as a whole has 3 hydroelectric stations, generating less than 250 MW.  None of these are located anywhere near the community which uses the largest share of power on the Island – Greater Victoria. 

Second, a mandate for energy self-sufficiency could be structured in a ways that puts control over power decisions in the hands of the public, or at least locally elected bodies.  People may be deeply suspicious of independent power projects, but that’s in part because they don’t see these projects as providing their own electricity.  One can imagine that if we set up a process in which local elected representatives are forced to choose between different public and private options to provide their power locally, including reducing local demand, you’d have the potential for real accountability. 

That sort of control would allow communities to choose whether to own their power generation, or whether they should contract with private power companies to generate their power.  They would decide how to live with the consequences of dirty power (use of non-renewable fossil fuels) or theenvironmental impacts of renewables (IPPs).  In that way it’s a good fit with the transition town movement – a movement which asks each community to take responsibility for what they need for a low energy, carbon neutral future and which is beginning to take root in several BC communities (including net-power importing urban centres like Victoria and Vancouver). 

Third, self-sufficiency includes a discussion about energy demand.  A community can discuss whether it’s better to reduce consumption or to build an additional dam and the consequences of that consumption is clear. 

Finally, the focus on self-sufficiency encourages an emphasis on small scale power generation in urban areas.  BC is behind when it comes to encouraging home owners to generate their own power.  Ontario has a micro-Feed In Tariff (micro-FIT) program which guarantees very small renewable power generators of 10 MW or less (think house-top solar panels and wind turbines) favourable rates for the power they generate as a way of encouraging this type of self-sufficiency.  The UK has just unveiled its own system of feed-in-tariffs, referred to in the U.K. as the Clean Energy Cashback system, but a recent poll shows that a majority of the public would support a more ambitious program.  By locating power generation on residential properties which are already tied into the grid, the government avoids having to build new transmission lines through forests, watersheds and agricultural land, and less power is wasted transporting the energy to where it will be used. 

These are some of my own thoughts – not intended as a policy recommendation or a call to action quite yet.  Please tell us what you think in the comments – should Victoria, Vancouver, Burnaby, Prince George, Nelson aim to generate their own power locally?  How big, or small, should a self-sufficient region be?  Would self-sufficiency mean the same regional inequalities, but on a smaller scale (ie. would Victoria turn to Sooke for all its power generation needs; Vancouver to Squamish and the Fraser Valley)?  Could, as one audience member suggested at West Coast’s Emerging Solutions for Clean, Green Power Dialogue, BC Hydro be decentralized to allow for input at the local level?

Andrewblogphoto.jpgBy Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer