COLUMN: Future of renewable energy in the BC hydro grid

Columnist Jim Hilton discusses incentives for renewable energy projects

Jim Hilton

Special to the Tribune Advisor

With the NDP decision to continue with the Site C dam project it is imperative that we continue to provide real incentives for renewable energy projects (independent power producers, IPPs).

While researching information about how forest biomass is contributing toward the supply of electrical energy to the BC Hydro grid I came across a very informative paper. Published in 2010 by two authors from the University of Victoria, Amy Sopinka and G. Cornelis van Kooten, the paper is entitled “Is BC a Net Power Importer or Exporter ?” The 24-page report is not an easy read but is very helpful in explaining the complexities of developing an energy grid that provides power at a reasonable price on a consistent basis.

Sometimes it is easier to understand a complex problem if you start with a less complicated one. For example, an article in the Mother Earth News described a small scale system of off-the-grid power using a combination of solar panels with batteries, a wind turbine and gas generator.

The take away from this is that if solar is the main power source, wind and gas systems are needed for times when the sun does not provide the necessary power.

Efficient and reliable energy production and usage does not come from one source only. While the same principles apply to complicated systems like the massive BC hydro grid the obvious difference is the main power source being water storage behind dams.

What I took away from the article from the University of Victoria was that water stored in the multiple dams around the province was like the batteries in the smaller system. When possible it is kept in reserve until it can be used to derive the best price relative to other power sources.

The out of province power sources are Alberta which is a net user of our power and the U.S. which is a net exporter of power to B.C.

The Albertans import our power on a diurnal basis i.e. we export our expensive power during their peak demand from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and import their cheaper excess night time power. It is easier for them to import power rather than ramp the coal fired plants up and down to meet changing demands.

The authors point out that the B.C. exports and imports to the U.S. markets are relatively small compared to the overall size of the market and are more seasonal in nature compared to the diurnal movement to Alberta. Graphs show how B.C. requires more electricity for heating and lighting in the winter while southern states need more electricity in the summer mostly for air conditioning. Power moves back and forth depending on the relative advantage for either provider.

The paper also reviews the pros and cons of a variety of alternate energy sources like run-of-river hydro, tidal power, solar photovoltaic (PV), wind and biomass. While the biomass plants like our local power plant have the advantage of more consistent power supply compared to solar or wind there can be a problem with competition for fibre from other users like pulp mills, OSB and pellet producers. In my opinion for the next nine years until the Site C starts to produce power (and beyond) we should be actively promoting the increase of alternate sources of power like solar, wind and biomass so that the we have a more flexible, diversified system.

In addition to the far north power systems as the main supplier of electricity we need to develop systems that, although more intermittent, would be more localized and provide longer term jobs and stability.

Jim Hilton is a professional agrologist and forester who has lived and worked in the Cariboo Chilcotin for the past 40 years. Now retired, Hilton still volunteers his skills with local community forests organizations.

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