Securing our future energy supplies requires integrated planning

By Greg Gowe and George Hoberg, Originally published in the Vancouver Sun February 13, 2009

The fundamental public policy problem associated with clean energy development in British Columbia is the lack of an integrated provincial or regional planning process for this new electricity supply.

This glaring gap in energy governance is leading to bitter “river by river” conflicts over each proposed “run-of-river” hydroelectric project.

The public outcry reached its zenith last year over a proposal to install run-of-river projects on eight tributaries of the Upper Pitt River, with the associated transmission lines to snake through Pinecone Burke Provincial Park. The project was derailed, at least temporarily, when Environment Minister Barry Penner refused to sign off on the needed adjustment to the park’s boundaries.

Vociferous opposition to poorly planned wind projects, which are now being developed, and ocean projects, which will soon be developed, will surely follow.

This lack of energy planning is rem-iniscent of B.C.’s approach to forest land use planning in the 1980s, where bitter valley-by-valley conflicts were waged in what came to be known as the “war in the woods.” As many will recall, it was not until the province initiated an integrated land use planning process in the 1990s, that calm was restored in our forests.

Until now, this gap in energy governance has been overshadowed by other controversies surrounding the development of renewable energy in B.C. The most notable of these is the vocal opposition to the government’s policy decision to rely solely on private “independent power projects” (IPPs) to harness B.C.’s rivers, ocean and wind resources.

Other IPP opponents have called into question the amount of new generating capacity B.C. actually needs, pointing to ways we could limit the projected increase in demand, or cost-effectively import power from neighboring jurisdictions. Most recently, BC Hydro has been lambasted for its flip-flop (and flip again) on the amount of new electricity it intends to purchase from IPPs under the current “Clean Power Call.”

While these issues are all worthy of public debate, they have diverted attention from the poorly planned approach that B.C. is taking to energy development. Embedded in the project-by-project approach are two significant shortcomings: 1) unnecessary environmental degradation; and 2) unnecessary roadblocks to the development of a robust clean energy economy in B.C., which is needed given the predicted consequences of climate change.

While there are existing natural resource planning and assessment policies and programs, they do not offer a solution when it comes to energy development. B.C.’s Strategic Land and Resource Plans were initiated in the 1990s primarily to quell forest use conflicts, and generally do not address energy issues. Furthermore, the provincial government has shown little appetite to reopen the plans, which were completed after years of intense negotiations with stakeholders.

Many new IPP projects are subject to federal and provincial environmental assessment processes. However, these processes are by definition site specific, and so do not adequately address the cumulative effects of multiple projects in a given area, nor provide an integrated planning perspective. BC Hydro is the sole purchaser of electricity produced by IPPs. But it is seemingly reluctant or unable to influence — either through its long-term power acquisition planning process or through the criteria it develops to assess which IPP projects will be awarded supply contracts — where generation projects get built.

Embracing the axiom “it’s better late than never,” the provincial government has, however, recently announced a new integrated electricity planning initiative that could inch this aspect of the IPP debate forward in a constructive manner. Specifically, it has ordered the province’s energy regulator, the B.C. Utilities Commission (BCUC), to conduct an “inquiry related to British Columbia’s electricity transmission infrastructure and capacity needs for the next 30 years.” The inquiry process must commence by March 31 and the BCUC has been told to invite and consider submissions from a broad range of stakeholders. While the stated focus of this initiative is on power transmission infrastructure and capacity, not power generation, the inquiry’s terms of reference appear broad enough to allow for an in depth assessment of the type of IPPs that should be built in B.C., and in what regions.

If this is the case, and if enough stakeholders participate, the inquiry could also be the start of a “wider conversation” that many experts have suggested that B.C. needs to determine what type of energy development we want, and what economic, environmental and lifestyle tradeoffs we are prepared to make to have that energy.

Given the increasing conflict in B.C. over IPPs, the importance of ensuring the province has a sufficient electricity supply, and the environmental consequences of any new electricity development, we are calling on the government to adopt an integrated provincial or regional planning process for new electricity supply.

The status quo is not good enough.

Greg Gowe is staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law; George Hoberg is a professor in the faculty of forestry at the University of British Columbia.

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