BY BILL PHILLIPS
Beware of fake news.
That’s the message from BC Hydro chair Brad Bennett, who says there is plenty of fake news circulating on social media about the Crown corporation in general and the building of the Site C dam specifically.
“We do have to build Site C,” Bennett said during a stop in Prince George earlier this year. “I take issue with the fake news crowd, talking about Site C and whether it’s needed or not. The fact is it’s needed. We know it’s needed. Our forecasting shows that very, very clearly.”
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Brad the grandson of former B.C. Premier W.A.C. Bennett for whom the first dam on the Peace River is named. Without building Site C, Hydro will fall behind where it needs to be to provide power to British Columbians, says the younger Bennett.
“We expect, without Site C, we will be in a capacity deficit of eight per cent in our 10-year planning horizon and an energy deficit of two per cent within that 10-year period,” he said. “A lot of this is about getting in front of the eventuality, getting in front of the curve. Making sure we have the power when we need it.”
He said Site C will produce 35 per cent of the energy produced at W.A.C. Bennett dam with only five per cent of the reservoir.
“Site C creates, in essence, a widening of the river,” he said. “It’s not like what happened at Williston, creating the reservoir which is now one of B.C. largest lakes. It’s basically recycled water. It will have been through two generating stations by the time is gets to Site C.”
Bennett said Hydro has spent almost half, $4 billion, of the $8.5 billion budgeted. And, a year-and-a-half into the eight-year construction period, he says the project is on budget and on schedule.
As of February, there were 1,900 people working at Site C, 82 per cent of those are from B.C., said Bennett, 700 workers are from the Peace. Forty-five per cent of the contractor work force is from the Peace region and 200 workers are First Nations. A total of 275 businesses have contributed.
While the times have certainly changed since the 1960s, when BC Hydro was formed, the core role of the Crown corporation hasn’t.
“The reasons they went ahead and created Hydro and got on with all the projects in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s are the same as they are today,” said Bennett. “We’re at a different place in history but the reasons for continuing to develop this much needed infrastructure, the backbone of our province, is as critical today as it always was.”
In addition, it’s not all about Site C. BC Hydro has 79 dams at 41 sites with 31 generating stations and more than 300 substations in the province.
“Our mission is to create reliable, safe, and affordable electricity for our customers,” he said.
BC Hydro is one of the largest companies in the province. In its fiscal year 2016 Hydro had revenues of $5.7 billion, with capital expenditures of $2.3 billion, and the end of last fiscal had assets of roughly $30 billion.
In the last five years, it has completed 560 capital projects with an aggregate value of $6.5 billion.
“We’re not just starting to build, we’ve been at this for a while,” said Bennett. “Don’t believe what you might hear from fake news. Hydro is a company that knows that it’s doing when it comes to building these projects, managing these projects, and getting them build on budget, on time. We find ourselves back in a period of big build, just like the company was in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.
It was in the 1950s that the W.A.C. Bennett government started studying major rivers in the province with the goal of providing hydroelectric power. In 1962 the government created BC Hydro by taking over BC Electric and amalgamating it with the B.C. Power Commission. At the same time, developed the Columbia River Treaty, signed in 1964.
The government was intent on opening up the north. It took over the BC Electric Railway which eventually became BCRail.
It also developed the Two Rivers Policy, with the idea of developing the Peace River and the Columbia River.
“We’re in an enviable position with all of our assets,” said Bennett. “We’ve got a legacy of solid infrastructure, but the fact is our assets are aging. So many of our assets are approaching half a century old. They require an awful lot of maintenance. We need to get on with building our capacity.”
Energy demand expected to increase by 40 per cent over the next 20 years, he said and the province’s population is expected to increase by two million people over the next 25 years. That means more demand for power.
Some say Hydro should look to alternative sources of power, such as wind, and solar, and run of the river to build that capacity. Bennett says the corporation has with independent power producers providing 25 per cent of its total energy.
“We can’t do more than that right now,” said Bennett. “We need to bring balance back into the system because just creating more intermittent power production on its own, doesn’t provide the reliability in the system we need. We need to have firm power. We need to have that firm capacity. That’s why hydroelectric facilities are so important so crucial. They provide power when we need it, on demand, all the time.
“Reservoirs are like giant batteries. They are, literally, our battery storage. We can turn our generators on, or shut them and we can manage our peak demand.”
So Hydro will work on expanding its capacity, with Site C, and other projects around the province.
Over the next 10 years capital plan spending will be more than $2 billion a year, which has a GDP impact of $13 billion.
“We are expecting to create around 100,000 person/years of employment,” said Bennett. “These aren’t minimum wage jobs. These are solid, middle class, family supporting jobs.”
Hydro, however, is a strange business. While the corporation is looking at expanding its capacity to serve more customers, it also spends billions urging British Columbians not to use its product as much.
“It’s not just about building,” said Bennett. “Let’s not forget the important side of what BC Hydro has done since the early 2000s, that’s invest in the demand side management, which is PowerSmart initiatives. That’s where we put an interesting spin on planning our business model. We actually invest hundreds of millions of dollars to convince you not to buy our product.”
The reason Hydro does that, he said, was so that it can delay the inevitable … building more capacity.
“At times demand side management isn’t enough and just have to get on with it and build.”