Deconstructing the Green Energy Controversy in British Columbia

George Hoberg

Talk delivered to PowerUp Canada Green Economy Dialogue, April 7, 2009

Controversy over renewable energy in British Columbia has been swelling over the past year, particularly over “run of the river power” projects being developed by independent power producers. This conflict has been magnified by a complex, overlapping set of issues whose character and interrelations are poorly understood. My objective here is to attempt to contribute to a more constructive dialogue by untangling the nest of issues fueling controversy, and promote a focus on the most critical issues.

I come from the perspective of an academic political scientist and policy analyst, but one trying to make a contribution to real policy discourse. I teach a course in Sustainable Energy Policy and Governance jointly offered by the Department of Political Science and the Conservation Program in the Faculty of Forestry at UBC.

I’m pretty sure that at an abstract level, all stakeholders could agree on an overarching objective:  Acquiring the energy we need at the least economic, social, and environmental cost. But as I describe below, this grand objective obscures a number of crucial disagreements about a number of concepts embedded in this statement, in large part because of different worldviews on a complex set of issues.

To start with, who “we” is, is surprisingly complicated. What “we need “ is contested and value laden. And we have very conflicting views of economic, social, and environmental costs.

In my mind, there are eight related issues underlying this controversy.

1.       Conflicting interests.  There are competing economic and political interests at stake in the dispute. Some of these clashes of interests are economic, such as profits from private energy vs. the loss union jobs. Others involve recreational interests, such as kayakers’ access to free flowing rivers, or even non-material interests, such a strong affinity with wild, free flowing rivers.

2.       How much energy do we need? Future energy needs are uncertain because of what Yogi Berra noted years ago:  “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Demand forecasting and the efficacy of demand side management (DSM) are both highly complex. But it’s more than just the inherent uncertainties of forecasting. This issue becomes so hotly contested because it also embodies value differences about what kinds of lives we should be living, i.e., whether we should be enabling “high impact” lifestyles or promoting greater frugality. What seems surprisingly absent from this part of the debate is a collective mobilization to reduce electricity use. If only we could find a way to channel a fraction of the cognitive and political energy spent on the IPP controversy to unleashing innovative demand side management initiatives. BC Hydro has become the province’s visionary voice on DSM. We need a stronger non-governmental champion of demand-side management

3.       Self sufficiency or clean energy exporter? One of the primary drivers behind future energy demand is what our provincial objective is. The BC Energy Plan commits us to provincial self-sufficiency with a reserve. But we also have the potential to be a clean energy export economy for either provincial income or the displacement of fossil fuels use in other jurisdictions. This issue becomes highly controversial because it opens the question of what is the appropriate jurisdictional scale to use as the unit of analysis. Is it the province, or some larger regional entity representing western North America? When this question gets opened, raw value differences enter about the relative merits of localism, nationalism, and globalism.

4.       Private vs. public. Perhaps the most divisive issue in the green energy controversy in BC has been the appropriate role of government and private firms in the various functions of delivering electricity. The Campbell government’s decision in 2002 to rely on private independent power producers for new sources of electricity has provoked a vehement backlash by a coalition of environmental  and labour groups.

5.       Community jurisdiction. The controversy over Ashlu Creek and the provincial government’s decision with Bill 30 to remove the ability of local government to block new power projects, has certainly fueled the controversy. In addition to removing a venue for place-based groups to be represented in the process, this aspect of the controversy has tapped into strong ideological differences on the appropriate scale of governance for resource decision making. This issue is certainly not distinct to BC – the conflict between local and higher level governments over the siting of new energy facilities is part of the emerging new politics of renewable energy across this country and throughout the developed world.

6.       Price. Part of the critique of independent power projects in BC is that they are too expensive and will lead to unnecessarily high electricity rate. But all new sources of power are going to be more expensive. We need to adopt an ethic that, because of the need to reflect their true environmental costs, energy prices will need to go up, and go up significantly. This fact creates a profound tension with the incentives of reelection-minded politicians to avoid imposing costs on potential supporters.

7.       Resource and size. What energy resource technology should we be using? Should we be building big facilities, small facilities, or both? It is noteworthy that despite its obvious centrality to sustainable energy decision making, this issue has not been part of the current controversy.

8.       Location and siting process. Assuming we need new sources of energy supply, where should new facilities go, and how do we decide? At present, the province lacks a coordinated, integrated process of energy facility decision making. The government’s decision to rely on IPPs for new sources of power aggravates this problem. Like the previous issue of resource and size, despite its centrality to sustainable energy decision making, this issue has not been an important part of the political controversy.

In my view, the dynamics of our green energy policy controversy have generated a tremendous amount of heat, but not enough light to allow us to focus on the most important issues.

We need to be respectful that there are a variety of interests at stake, but also mindful of how those interests might motivate different arguments. But we also need to rise above the cacophony of special interest arguments in the search of a broader public interest.

We need to project how much energy we need after aggressive, cost-effect conservation measures are adopted, and in order to do so we need a vision for the provincial electricity sector. The issue of public vs. private has dominated the dispute, yet it is arguably the least important. Private business can be compatible with societal objectives, given the right governance framework.

We need to find a governance framework that effectively represents place-based interests without having them unjustifiably veto projects that are in the provincial interest.

We need to get the price right, but in a way that acknowledge the need for energy prices to rise, and insulates progressive politicians from electoral backlash.

We’ve been paying so much attention to ideologically charged issues that we aren’t even thinking systematically about the most important ingredients to a sustainable energy policy:

·         After a concerted effort at demand side management, what are our energy needs?

·         What kinds of new supply should we have?

·         What governance framework do we need to effectively site and regulate new facilities?

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