Editorial: Hydro projects need oversight

Independent power producers generate about 20 per cent of B.C. Hydro’s power needs, but the province has done a poor job of overseeing the young industry. Projects, particularly run-of-river generating stations that can endanger fish and the health of rivers if not managed properly, need careful supervision. They haven’t been getting it.

A provincial government memo released to the Wilderness Committee after a freedom-of-information request says the Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations ministry doesn’t have enough staff to monitor the companies. As of September 2011, 90 per cent of the projects had “incidents” or “non-compliance” with environmental regulations.

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With insufficient staff, the ministry didn’t watch the weekly or annual environmental reports from the projects. All it did was review the five-year summary reports.

The B.C. Liberal government, which made private electricity production one of the pillars of its energy plan in 2002, has to take responsibility for making sure producers live up to their obligations.

B.C. Hydro had 79 purchase agreements for 15,000 gigawatt-hours per year of contracted energy from private operators as of April 1. Another 51 agreements are in the works. Fifty-five of the current ones and 35 of the proposed ones are hydro projects.

Although B.C. Hydro buys the power, the province is responsible for watching environmental impacts. Run-of-river projects have to get a water licence before they can be built or operated, and the province reviews those licence applications.

If government doesn’t have the staff to monitor existing facilities, how can it manage the new ones when they come on stream?

The ministry says the majority of the compliance issues were administrative, such as submitting monitoring reports late. The incidents, however, included fish kills and allowing the water in rivers to drop to dangerously low levels. It also says it has adopted all the recommendations in the memo.

However, the government’s commitment to environmental oversight is in doubt after more than 10 years of promoting private power while leaving such gaps in monitoring. The doubt is reinforced by the decision on the Holmes River hydro project in northeastern B.C., which will put 10 generation sites on a section of the river 40 kilometres long.

The company building it was allowed to file separate applications for each site, so none of the sites require an environmental assessment. A coalition of conservation groups has asked a B.C. Supreme Court judge to overturn that decision.

The hunt for greener energy is an important part of B.C.’s future. Wind, solar power, biomass and waste heat are some of the options for independent power producers, as is hydro.

Run-of-river plants are cheaper to build than many other systems, can be located closer to markets and transmission lines than things like wind farms, and produce almost no greenhouse gases during operation. A 50-megawatt hydro plant could power 25,000 homes.

A study by the Ontario Power Authority of 14 methods of generating electricity found that run-of-river had the least environmental impact. While hydro power is less damaging to the environment than the alternatives, it does have its risks. Smaller projects like run-of-river don’t create huge reservoirs, but they can have serious effects on fish-bearing streams. Water levels and velocities have to be monitored carefully.

The government’s and B.C. Hydro’s commitment to greener energy options will benefit the province in the long run, provided it is backed up with oversight to protect B.C.’s environment.

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