Pitch for increased electricity supply in North Thompson falls flat… again

Written By Fran Yanor

The quest to expand BC Hydro power in the North Thompson and Robson valleys is a 20-year-old battle waged by successive elected representatives. Given the BC NDP government’s ambitious electrification agenda and the massive shortfall of existing electricity generation to meet those goals, local leaders recently took up the cause again, optimistic this time they could break through the BC Hydro impasse. 

Instead, they hit the same old wall.

“The reliability of the North Thompson power supply is within the expected performance for rural areas, and there is sufficient capacity in the substations along the corridor to meet load growth over the next 10 years with no upgrades,” BC Energy Minister Josie Osborne wrote to Valemount mayor Owen Torgerson and Simpcw First Nation chief George Lampreau in November.

Valemount and Simpcw councils met with Osborne in September at the Union of BC Municipalities conference to request a second transmission line be installed from the 2,800 MW Mica Dam to the North Thompson to increase reliability of supply and reduce air pollution. BC Hydro is the only utility that serves the North Thompson Valley from Kamloops to Valemount.

Besides reliability concerns, Torgerson said power capacity has always been an issue when trying to attract new industry to the region. Without a commitment power will be there, investors are reluctant to risk setting up new operations, which hampers the village’ ability to grow its industrial sector and local economy, he said.

Simpcw have a similar experience. “I don’t know how come they’re saying we have enough power,” Lampreau said, explaining his community is exploring potential investment opportunities and have been told the valley doesn’t have enough power to serve any new larger projects.

Minister Osborne declined a request for an interview to speak further on the topic.

Valemount mayor Owen Torgerson and Simpcw chief George Lampreau at the Union of BC Municipalities conference where they petitioned Energy Minister Josie Osborne for additional hydro transmission line to improve power supply reliability. [Photo Owen Torgerson X]

“They don’t have enough capacity for any real growth in the [North Thompson] valley anymore,” said Kamloops-North Thompson MLA Peter Milobar. “BC Hydro says they do. But they don’t.

“Essentially, you plug in an extra toaster oven in that valley and you’re going to blow out the grid.”

An exaggeration, he said, but not by much.

“Essentially, you plug in an extra toaster oven in that valley and you’re going to blow out the grid.”

Peter Milobar

The Thompson and Robson valleys are served by two dead-ended transmission lines. One runs from Prince George to Valemount. The other 138-kV line travels 347 kilometres (the second longest in the province) from Brocklehurst, near Kamloops, to the TransMountain pumping station north of Valemount. There is a gap in between and no ability to back feed into either, said Milobar.

“So, if the power goes out just north of Kamloops, the whole valley up to where that line stops is without power. There’s no ability to connect or back feed in.”

Residents burn wood as back-up heating source

Valemount residents have been hit with two 20-hour-plus, unplanned outages in the past two years plus numerous shorter interruptions in service, but even planned outages can leave some residents vulnerable without an alternate back-up heating and cooking source, said mayor Torgerson.

During an outage, local line crews redirect power from a backup generator in McBride to the more vulnerable citizens in senior living facilities and the local health centre, but many others in the community rely on household gas, diesel or propane generators, along with wood-burning stoves to heat their homes during outages and peak hydro rate times. This, in turn, creates some of highest air pollution levels in the province.

The Village of Valemount has been exploring deep-bore geothermal power for more than a decade and recently has been designing a community-wide geothermal district heat project with support of Simpcw First Nation.

“With 2.5 particulate matter emission of wood stoves, we’re killing ourselves to stay warm, but with no other options, what choices do we have?” Torgerson asked.

“There’s a very legitimate real concern in these communities when you’re saying you’re going to go to 100 per cent to one utility,” Milobar said. “Even if you have a backup generator, you can’t have those running on natural gas in the valley, because there is no natural gas.”

In the absence of another source of energy, what’s required is the redundancy capacity of a hydro interconnection piece, said Milobar.

It’s an old argument for Milobar. Back when he was mayor of Kamloops and chair of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District 17 years ago, he other area elected representatives lobbied BC Hydro for essentially the same improvements. 

‘Operating close to maximum capacity’

As far back as 2008, the BC Transmission Corporation (BCTC) reported the electricity transmission system north of Kamloops was “operating close to [its] maximum capacity” because of increased demand, including industrial expansion, the previous several years.  “Consequently, reinforcements will be required to accommodate any significant increase in industrial load or local resource development. New mining loads proposed in the area will exceed the capacity of the existing system.” 

If load growth was allowed to increase, a new transmission line and/or local generation would be required to increase system capacity, the BCTC report warned. 

“Reliability of supply [in North Thompson] is a concern.”

BC Transmission Commission, 2008 State of Transmission Report

In 2012, after a copper mining project was proposed near Vavenby, north of Kamloops, BC Hydro reportedly agreed with the BCTC (since absorbed into BC Hydro), saying additional electricity would be required in the Thompson to support any new large customers. At the time, hydro even began a planning survey to consider best options for delivering additional power to the region, only to call off the study several months later, concluding that actually there was sufficient capacity in the system to support a decade of growth after all. (Almost exactly what the current BC Energy Minister Osborne told Torgerson and Lampreau in November.)

But hydro’s 10-year growth estimate didn’t include the proposed Yellowhead Mining project whose development was ultimately halted. “Typically, the public power utility requires revenue guarantees, such as a commitment to provide funding, plus buy a defined amount of electricity before expanding its transmission system,” a BC Hydro representative reportedly said.

in 2012, BC Hydro began a planned study of options to get increased electrical power to a proposed open pit copper mine near Vavenby. Note: the existing transmission line runs parallel to Hwy 5. [Map Yellowhead Mining Inc]

Taseko subsequently acquired the project and has re-initiated the environmental assessment processes, this time with federal, provincial and Indigenous governments, according to its company website.

The mine is located near Simpcw and several other communities within the nation’s larger asserted territory. Chief Lampreau said his council has been approached by several potential mining proponents and is engaged in discussions. “They’re going to need major power for their project, so we might still get our power needs taken care of,” he said.

Attracting any new business to the North Thompson appears to hinge on new industry being able to ante up for new upgrades. Judging by the failed Yellowhead Mine project from 2013, that strategy hasn’t worked out for the surrounding communities that need employment and sustainable local economic stimulus. It also seems to run counter to the BC NDP government’s climate aspirations to electrify the provincial economy by 2030.

Clean BC objectives don’t jive with infrastructure reality on the ground

In fact, there’s a vast disconnect between government objectives in the Clean BC Roadmap and the province’s current energy generation capacities.  

In 2023, BC Hydro imported 20 per cent of its energy needs, costing nearly $500 million. Even if Site C had been up and running, it would only have met a portion of what B.C. had to import. That’s without considering the increased demands of the BC NDP’s transition-to-electricity plan or factoring in the disorienting effects of their love-hate-ignore relationship with natural resource development.

From before they formed government in 2017, the BC NDP vehemently opposed the Site C electric dam and anything to do with fossil fuel production or distribution. In 2019, the BC NDP ridiculed and cancelled the previous BC Liberal government’s call for Independent power projects, or IPPs as they are known, saying the power wasn’t needed. 

Then last year, after being acclaimed as premier, Eby escalated his government’s Clean BC near-zero emission targets and locked down tight deadlines. The problem was the gaping shortfall between existing electrical generation and the amount needed to meet his expansive vision of electrifying B.C.’s economy. The necessity of Site C quickly became apparent and Eby’s government quietly stopped opposing it. Then in December, the province reissued a call for new independent power production, this one for 3,000 MW, more than the previous government’s call. Even so, the power production will still fall short of 2023 usage, never mind the projected demands of a heavily electrified future economy.  

The BC NDP’s political about-face didn’t include embracing LNG. Outside of approving the Haisla-owned Cedar LNG project, the Nisga’a Ksi Lisims LNG proposal and allowing operating projects to proceed, B.C. has generally throttled back on liquified natural gas projects across-the-board (even as it goes full steam ahead on more polluting coal and wood pellet exports).

“You will have access to clean, stable, affordable electricity to decarbonize your operations and to build jobs.”

David Eby

In January, Eby announced an additional $12 billion investment on top of his government’s previous $24 billion capital plan to build hydro infrastructure projects, including new transmission lines between Prince George and Terrace, substations to support housing growth and transit electrification in the Lower Mainland, and upgrades to existing dams and electricity generation projects. Eby estimated the total investments will create between 10,500 and 12,500 jobs annually for 10 years.

“It’s insurance to you that you will have access to clean, stable, affordable electricity to decarbonize your operations and to build jobs in British Columbia,” he told attendees at the Natural Resources Forum in Prince George.

But BC United Leader Kevin Falcon said the province needs more than just independent power projects and Site C. “We need to have natural gas as part of that solution. Because all of it has to work together to make sure that we have the energy security that we need in this province. We want to make sure that B.C. is self-sufficient.”

‘We got excluded’

Lampreau, Torgerson and others in the Thompson and Robson valleys were hoping the province’s call for additional independent power production would bring more electricity to the region, but government documents indicate the region is a non-priority. 

“There were projects announced all over the province except for our corner of the province. We got excluded,” said Lampreau, citing two run-of-river electricity projects (Clemina and Serpentine) that have been only partially developed.

“What would solve our problems up there is if they would get behind us and help [us] fund these run-of-the-river projects,” he said. “If we could get those two up and running, that would take care of their problems up there, and give us enough power to probably support industrial growth in that area of the valley.”

“There were projects announced all over the province except for our corner of the province.”

George Lampreau

Most of B.C.’s electricity is generated in the northern and southern interior regions, then transported to the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island where it is used. Because of the long transmission distances, a December 2023 BC Hydro report recommends building new generation near to the regions with heaviest demand – the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and the North Coast, and from Prince George to Kitimat.

Adding electricity generators to regional areas, even intermittent power production, would help with local electricity demand, but could cause stress on the transmission system necessitating upgrades, the hydro report states.

Bone Creek run-of-river dam near Blue River in Simpcw Territory and the North Thompson Valley has a 19 MW capacity and will operate for 20 years, until 2031. The recent call for additional independent power production includes small and large projects across the province. [Photo TransAlta]

Which means, the next step for the Thompson and Robson group will probably be to figure out a way to get additional power into the valley without the help of BC Hydro, Lampreau said.  

CleanBC targets predicted to shrink economy

Meanwhile, the province is forcing a transition from reliance on gas and oil to hydro electrification before capacity to supply the electricity is in place. CleanBC commits to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40 per cent of 2007 levels by 2030, and all new residential construction and automobile sales electric-only by 2035.

Speaking from Prince George in the middle of a cold snap, BC United’s Falcon called the goal of electric-only vehicles by 2035 “completely unrealistic,” particularly for rural and northern areas.

Outside the main urban centres, progress on constructing EV charging infrastructure is plodding.

If government wants more electric vehicle uptake in rural and remote areas, it should consider helping with costs, says Milobar. When a gas station owner in the small North Thompson community of Avola wanted to install a fast-charging station at his location directly across the highway from a BC Hydro substation, the utility company wanted $150,000 to connect the station. 

The owner walked away. 

“Where are people reasonably supposed to charge an electric vehicle in that valley?” Milobar asked. “It’s the only one in town that wanted to put in a fast charger station.”

Which leads to the most significant criticism of the CleanBC program. Drastic emission reduction targets are expected to shrink the GDP across 22 sectors, with only electricity generators and manufacturers predicted to grow,” reported the Business Council of BC after analyzing economic modelling released by the B.C. government. 

“[CleanBC]… will push economic growth down to the slowest pace on record.”

Business Council of BC

“The BCBC assumed that there would be no development in a clean economy, no economic development on clean energy…and expansion of resource industries to provide decarbonized economies,” BC Environment Minister George Heyman said in the legislature in November in response to criticisms in the business council’s report.

“[Clean BC] is achieving results, not just results in emission reduction but results in spurring growth in low-carbon economic development, which is where the world is headed,” Heyman said. “Our plan will deliver what British Columbians want, which are reduced emissions.”

But the BC business council recommended delaying the energy transition deadlines to 2050. Otherwise, the CleanBC agenda to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will shrink the province’s economy by almost $30 billion and “push economic growth down to the slowest pace on record, substantially dampening overall prosperity by the end of the decade.” 

Rather than growing by 20 per cent as it would have under a 2017 context, B.C.’s economy will expand less than 10 per cent between 2020 and 2030 under CleanBC, the business council states.

“The NDP’s Clean BC plan… is actually going to, by their own numbers – not me saying this – shrink B.C.’s GDP by 10 per cent,” said BC United Leader Kevin Falcon in a press conference in January. 

“That’s why the decision that the BC Utilities Commission made to shut down Fortis BC’s plan to spend over $300 million to ensure that there’s natural gas to add act as an important heating supply to one of the fastest growing parts of the province – the Okanagan – is so short sighted,” said Falcon.

The no-grow economy strategy

In January, the BC Utilities Commission rejected a Fortis BC application to build and pay for a 30-kilometer pipeline to meet future population growth in West Kelowna. 

Like the communities in the North Thompson Valley, West Kelowna residents are also supplied by single-circuit radial systems – which means power flows only one way – making supply reliability an ongoing issue in both regions. In West Kelowna, the issues are compounded by dramatic growth in energy demands from increased population. Over the years, communities in both areas have been hit by days-long power outages following forest fires. 

It doesn’t look like BC Hydro is rushing to the rescue of either region any time soon. 

When Fortis BC told the Utilities Commission that demand for power in the West Kelowna area could outstrip the company’s ability to supply it as early as 2026/27, the commission rejected the premise and basically told the company to get cracking on other options.

“Fortis BC’s application did not consider the possibility that demand for natural gas in the Okanagan region could flatten or decrease over the next 20 years, due, in part, to BC’s CleanBC Roadmap commitments,” a BCUC statement read.

Where that leaves West Kelowna residents in the meantime is unclear. But if shrinking demand for gas is the BC NDP’s overarching goal and predictions of a reduced economy haven’t shaken their resolve, BC Hydro’s intransigence may align with the predicted economics of the government’s climate agenda: Don’t build it and they won’t come. 

By refusing a community or company’s request for more power, prospective projects will shrink or go elsewhere. Without growth, no new transmission or gas lines are needed. With that strategy, capacity can be retained across the province indefinitely.

“They said, ‘We don’t build for what ifs,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, actually, you do.’”

Peter Milobar

Hydro says there’s capacity, but there isn’t, said Milobar. “What happens is you get a project that needs just slightly more power than what they say they have capacity for, but it’s not a big enough project that hydro is going to advance any capacity.

Back when Milobar first entered the fray with BC Hydro nearly 20 years ago, “They said, ‘We don’t build for what ifs,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, actually, you do.’” Previously, hydro considered not just the business case for “the mine at the end of the line,” but also the spin-off impacts on the wider community along the corridor the new line created, he said. 

“But hydro is unwilling to do any public good with their utility to at least make sure there’s stable electrical power in the valley.”

The Simpcw’s Lampreau said since critical mineral mining projects like copper and gold are now a key government priority, hydro will have to figure out how to get industry the power it needs, which could inadvertently ease the region’s capacity issues in the process.

“But again, it’s industry driving government,” he said. “Government is not listening to the taxpayers, the ratepayers, their constituents in the North Thompson and Robson on their needs.”