“We need to act now to meet this growing demand to ensure we stay on track with our climate goals.”––David Eby
Premier David Eby’s ambitious plan to electrify the province’s oil, gas and mining sectors, to help government meet its climate targets, has always been shadowed by one niggling question: Does BC actually have enough power to get the job done?
For months, New Democrats and BC Hydro have insisted they had it all mapped out and under control, as part of Hydro’s 20-year power plan.
On Thursday, a begrudging admission: Hydro was wrong.
Not just a little wrong, but the equivalent of 270,000-homes-worth-of-power wrong. It is now scrambling to launch a new call to power producers to help it generate the electricity needed to keep up with increased electric vehicle usage, heat pumps and government climate policy.
Hydro CEO Chris O’Riley couldn’t quite bring himself to say any of this outright, during a press conference Thursday alongside Premier David Eby. The words “mistake” and “incorrect” failed to leave his mouth as the head of a multi-billion Crown power agency with a monopoly on B.C.’s electricity market and a small army of forecasting experts.
Instead, it was all spin.
‘When the wind blows and the sun shines’
“We are living in an exciting time,” said O’Riley. “We are witnessing and participating in revolutionary moves that are transitioning our global energy system towards a fully decarbonized system.”
“The need for clean energy, including wind and solar power, in our province has accelerated,” added Eby.
“We need to act now to meet this growing demand to ensure we stay on track with our climate goals.”
Hydro said it is preparing a call for 3,000 gigawatt hours per year of new clean energy from private producers that it hopes to purchase by 2029, with another 700 gigawatt hours squeezed out of existing independent power producers (IPPs) already in operation.
The new projects must be 100 per cent renewable energy — mainly wind or solar — and have at least some indigenous participation, according to Hydro.
“One of the reasons why we’re fortunate to be able to look to wind and solar to provide some of the electrical needs in our province is because we have the hydroelectric resource backing it up as a giant battery,” said Eby.
“So that, when the wind blows and the sun shines, we can use the wind turbines and the solar panels, and, when it’s not there, we can release water from the dams and use hydroelectricity.”
The dam site that shall not be named
It’s still jarring to hear New Democrats praise the Site C dam (though, not by name) for providing the reliable, clean hydroelectric power they need to build new solar and wind projects and achieve their climate plans.
After all, the NDP spent years pledging to scrap Site C, arguing it was too expensive and unnecessary, only to discover after taking power that the previous BC Liberal government had pushed construction past the point of no return.
Site C isn’t the only questionable energy policy New Democrats have driven in recent years. The government commissioned a 2019 report, titled “Zapped,” which concluded it was paying billions of dollars in IPP contracts for power it didn’t need.
In response, the NDP started reducing reliance on IPPs, many of which were small-scale run-of-river power projects with First Nations partners.
Four years later, the government is resurrecting its call for projects it cancelled because it turns out it did need the power after all.
Cancelling previous call for independent power producers ‘short-sighted’
That doesn’t make sense, said BC United leader Kevin Falcon.
“Just imagine the short-sighted leadership where they called not only to end Site C, but cancel these independent power projects,” Falcon said in an interview.
“Over 20 per cent of our power is generated with IPPs in this province, 90 per cent of that is generated in partnership with First Nations. It’s been a phenomenally successful way to generate our power needs,” said Falcon. “But they came out and said, ‘Oh no, we have surplus power, we don’t need to be doing these IPPs,’ and they were obviously completely wrong.”
Eby said the new call for power is “significantly different” than the 2019 standing-offer program, because instead of locking the province in at guaranteed rates above the market rate for electricity, the new program will put out for auction power calls at competitive rates.
“That program did not work, and we’re not repeating it,” he said.
“But this program is different in that BC Hydro’s projections are they will need this electricity. They are calling for proposals, where they will be able to select proposals that provide the electricity when and where the province needs it, not at other times when it’s not needed. And it’s a competitive rate. It’s not a standing offer, a fixed rate that electricity will be provided at above the market level.”
‘Idealogical bias’ put province in worse position
Falcon said the NDP weren’t able to get over their “ideological bias” against private partnerships in 2019 and have put the province in a worse position now. He said leadership at BC Hydro has failed as well, and if he wins the next election he intends to clean house at the Crown corporation.
“You are damn right I would, and it would start by having some people on the board that know a thing or two about business,” he said. “There would be big changes coming at Hydro.”
For its part, Hydro says the power is needed because British Columbians are more quickly switching to electric vehicles, and more homes are adapting to heat pumps, according to its 368-page regulatory filing outlining the changes to the BC Utilities Commission.
Also very much a factor is Eby’s new sectoral emission caps for major industrial projects like oil, gas and LNG facilities, which will either have to tie future expansion into the Hydro electric grid to keep emissions low or face rejection and penalties from the province.
The actual caps have yet to be set, but if they push large mines, LNG projects and gas facilities to tie into the Hydro grid, they will dramatically increase the draw on Hydro’s available electricity.
Many small power producers previously ‘left in the lurch’
Hydro has for some time disputed that the NDP government’s ambitious CleanBC climate plan actually put targets in place BC Hydro would have to follow, including during testimony at the BC Utilities Commission in 2020. But Thursday, the corporation flip flopped.
“These actions will position BC Hydro to meet potential electrification load associated with the Government of B.C.’s greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, as represented in the accelerated electrification load scenario,” it wrote in its regulatory filing.
The call for new energy projects also came with $140 million from the B.C. government to help First Nations prepare and compete for the new Hydro contracts.
The move was widely praised by environmental groups. The BC Greens support the idea too, but say the NDP was much too late to understand the situation.
“The admission that we need more energy should have come years ago when the alarm bells first sounded,” leader Sonia Furstenau said in a statement. “After the BC NDP suspended the Standing Offer Program in 2019, many small renewable energy projects spearheaded by First Nations were left in the lurch.”
Hydro and the NDP insist this new plan is the right calculation of the energy the province needs for the future — though, both have said that before. In all likelihood, British Columbians will get a new Hydro plan from whomever wins the next election. And all of these calculations will get redone again.