The Royal Society of Canada and some 250 academics have called on the federal government to suspend the development of the proposed Site C hydroelectric dam in northeastern British Columbia.
The academics issued an open letter this week stating their concerns about the current construction of the $8.8 billion Site C earth-fill hydro dam on the Peace River, with the president of the Royal Society (RSC) supplying a supporting letter.
Among the concerns’ cited are fears of adverse environmental effects, that the approval process does not accord with legal obligations to First Nations, and that the project’s electricity output is presently unnecessary, saying that alternative options should be pursued. Both letters called for a review by the BC Utilities Commission-a recommendation that had also been made by the project’s Joint Review Panel.
Of the 250 signatories, 21 are natural scientists, and the rest come from the humanities, social sciences and fine arts. No energy systems analysts were amongst the signatories.
Meanwhile, energy systems researchers and engineers with PICS’ flagship 2060 Project use computer models to assess how Canada can decarbonise its electricity generation. According to these analysts, growth in energy demand is unavoidable both due to an increasing population, but also to the province’s international climate obligations to electrify heating and transportation.
“Eventually, if we want to switch to a low-carbon economy, we will need more electricity,” says researcher Jeff English. “Site C is the least expensive of these options.”
But it’s not just a question of cost. It’s also a matter of dependability, he explains.
Renewables such as wind and solar are variable and intermittent because the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. So there has to be an energy source that is “always on” that can provide back-up, and that can be dispatchable at a moment’s notice, as well as provide storage for any excess. Alberta wants to shutter its coal plants, but if it replaces them only with wind turbines, the 2060 researchers have found, they will need to build out almost as many natural-gas-fired plants to provide this back-up.
The 2060 researchers’ models have shown however that if the transmission connections between the two provinces are expanded, in principle, BC’s clean hydroelectricity can provide some of the back-up instead of gas. Site C would add to BC Hydro’s potential to do this, and its reservoirs could be used as giant batteries to store wind-produced electricity from Alberta in the form of water at those times of the day when the province is making more electricity than it needs.
Yet even after Site C is built, according to English, BC would not have sufficient energy to supply Alberta in bulk. It can only help “fill some of the gaps” next door. So to completely decarbonise, both BC and Alberta combined need to construct a lot more clean, dispatchable electricity generation—even beyond that provided by Site C.
Nevertheless, the 2060 researchers would be the first to admit that they only look at how to produce the fewest greenhouse gas emissions at the lowest cost, and are not tasked with assessing whether such options have negative impacts on First Nations rights or biodiversity.
Article amended Dec. 14th, 2016.
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