UBC Site C dam analysis misses mark on electricity demand

When you combine the costs of the turbines, the transmission lines and the pumped hydro storage, wind is no longer cheaper than Site C, but rather ends up being a lot more expensive

Like many energy wonks, I obtained a copy of the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Program on Water Governance report on the Site C dam project (Reassessing the Need for Site C), and I want to point out some areas where this analysis is completely unconvincing.

The assessment argues that wind energy would be cheaper than Site C, but the analysis compares the cost of delivered electricity from Site C with the cost of building wind turbines only. It omits the transmission and storage requirement needed to allow those turbines to supply us with electricity.

An evaluation of wind resources in B.C. highlights the biggest problem with wind energy in the province. The best winds blow where people aren’t. To supply electricity to B.C. population centres, any new wind facilities will need to be coupled with expensive transmission systems.

The UBC assessment doesn’t include this cost for wind energy while including that cost when discussing Site C.

Besides not blowing where most British Columbians live, winds also don’t tend to blow when people need electricity. Wind energy peaks late in the evening and early in the day, the two times when demand for electricity is lowest. That is why wind turbines are generally connected to storage units (like pumped hydro), so the cost of the capacity upgrade for the wind needs to include the cost of that storage as well.

When you combine the costs of the turbines, the transmission lines and the pumped hydro storage, wind is no longer cheaper than Site C, but rather ends up being a lot more expensive.

The assessment also fails when it tries to discount our future electricity needs in a post-Paris Agreement future. In 2016, the federal government charged Environment and Climate Change Canada with assessing the country’s energy needs if we are to effectively fight climate change. The resulting report depended heavily on the research from the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) and Trottier Energy Futures Project (TEFP).

The government energy experts relied on the results from research groups from leading research institutions in 16 of the world’s largest greenhouse-gas-emitting countries and a team of more than a dozen energy experts from the Canadian Academy of Engineering.

What do these groups say about our projected electricity needs under a Paris Agreement future? They predict increases in electricity requirements on the order of 130% and 220% above current requirements by 2050.

According to the UBC assessment: “both studies find that meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over the reference case are accompanied by substantial increases in electricity requirements…

These studies suggest that, in a low-carbon future, the Site C project would inevitably be needed even if BC Hydro has overestimated needs in the short to medium term.”

The UBC assessment attempts to challenge the DDPP and TEFP on a number of topics, including energy prices and demand-side management, but a careful read of the analysis fails to find any arguments against the critical drivers in increases in energy use: the transition of industrial, transportation and home energy systems from fossil fuels to electricity. In ignoring the basis for the electricity demand increases, the assessment fails to effectively debunk the work of all those other experts.

The federal government experts are unanimous on the topic. If we are to effectively fight climate change, we will need a lot more electricity, and the UBC assessment does nothing to dispel that truth. Site C might not be the perfect choice to provide that electricity, but to deny that we will need the electricity, if we are going to succeed in our fight against climate change, is simply wrong.

Blair King is an environmental scientist who works out of Langley and blogs at the website A Chemist in Langley (achemistinlangley.wordpress.com/)