Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Energy plan aims in right direction

VICTORIA - There’s a few bits that should make you nervous in the provincial energy plan released Tuesday, but much more that indicates B.C. is on the right track.
The plan lacks detail to back up most of the big targets, a little disappointing given how long the government has to work on the file.
It's great to say that conservation efforts will cut projected energy consumption growth in half, but it would be useful to know the cost and how consumers — commercial and residential — will be motivated to take the necessary steps.
And there are worries about subsidies to business and the somewhat vague intention to use BC Hydro as an agent of "social, economic and environmental" change.
The Liberals' moves since 2001 to put Crown corporations on a firmer business footing were welcome. For BC Hydro, that meant a focus on delivering cheap, secure power, with the B.C. Utilities' Commission protecting consumers.
But things have apparently changed. The government has decided there are some important policy objectives that can be advanced most effectively through B.C. Hydro.
The Crown corporation has a history as an agent of change. W.A.C. Bennett's dam-building spree some 50 years ago provided cheap electricity that has been a boon to the province's economy to this day. Consumers and industry both benefit from relatively inexpensive power, thanks to Bennett's enthusiasm for big hydro projects.
And, happily, those projects with their zero emissions have become highly favoured as concerns about climate change mount.
Bennett would likely have been pleased to see that B.C. is once again looking at a hydro megaproject, the Site C dam on the Peace River near Fort St. John.
It's tougher to build dams now, not so easy to dismiss the claims of those whose lives will be changed by the flooding or the warnings of environmental damage. Those issues — along with the $3.5-billion cost — have made the Liberals mighty nervous about the dam.
But the Peace River has already been dammed; this would just be another one. While the land consumed by the Site C project is significant, compensation could be part of the plan.
And the 900-megawatt capacity would deliver as much power as four greenhouse gas emitting gas-power plants, more cheaply.
Today, if a deal can reached with local First Nations, that makes the project highly attractive.
Energy Minister Richard Neufeld is still being cautious, but the dam is very much back on the agenda.
Mostly, the new energy policy is about goals. The government doesn't want to need electricity imports by 2016 (a puzzling goal); all power projects will have zero "net" emissions by the same year, meaning gas-fired plants better start planting trees; by 2020 half the province's growth in power consumption should be offset by conservation measures. (You'll buy a more efficient fridge and turn down the heat to offset the effect of that new family from New Brunswick and all their appliances.)
Most of the goals make sense. The question open for debate now is how we get there.
For example, the government proposes a $25-million increase in electricity rates to provide money government can use to "help promising clean power technology projects succeed."
That should make you nervous. Government's track record in picking winners, as Liberal cabinet ministers use to point out, is not good. Companies with good ideas should be able to look to the market for funding.
And the plan calls for new energy efficiency standards for buildings by 2010. That's likely a good thing, but how much will the cost of an new house, or commercial building, be pushed up by the new regulations?
Those are the kinds of questions the government needs to be able to answer over the next few months. The framework energy policy points in the right direction.
Its credibility will rest on the government's ability to begin filling in the large blanks in the plan.
Footnote: The plan appears to heed the advice of the B.C. Progress Board, the useful advisory group created by the premier. It suggested in late 2005 that government, not B.C. Hydro, should be setting energy policy. "B.C. Hydro is seen by many concerned parties to heavily outweigh the ministry in staff and resources, which puts the government in the position of not being able to provide adequate oversight and direction," said the panel. That seems to be changing.


Anonymous said...

The opposition were trying to get some answers from the Minister today. he kept waving a booklet around but wasn't saying anyhting that made sense. at one point he told the opposition to be sure and turn their lights out at home. The idea of energy savings is great but it seems the governemtn has put no money into programs to do much of anyhtin. They are putting a extra charge on the Hydro bill

Anonymous said...

The Site C dam is not going to happen. Site C is just a 'dummy' so that the BC Liberals can get approval for the Alcan deal in Kitamat.

When does the Kootaney power deal with the US expire? We are sending huge amounts of power to our american friends on a term limited deal (unless NAFTA 'forces' us to continue shipping).

Perhaps the "puzzling" 2016 goal is related to the Kootaney deal?