On April 19, 2010, the government of the Province of British Columbia announced that it would proceed with what is called “Site C Clean Energy Project”. It now goes to regulatory review, which includes an environmental impact assessment.
Site C, if built, would be the third hydropower project on the Peace River, in northeastern British Columbia. Once built, it is projected to provide enough power for 410,000 homes.
The provincial government maintains that Site C is essential for the people and industry of BC. Combined with the government’s recent Clean Energy Act, which mandates the 66% of all new electrical demand come from conservation rather than development, it is supposed to provide BC’s power needs for some time to come.
However, hydropower, while cleaner than coal, is not without it’s impacts. Site C will see the flooding of over 9500 hectares (about 36 square miles) of land to produce the reservoir. Though the environmental impact assessment is supposed to address that, other provisions of the Clean Energy Act actually remove much of the oversight that used to be on BC Hydro, the Crown Corporation that will build and operate the dam.
A number of groups have stepped up to fight the dam project, including the Sierra Club of BC, the Pembina Institute, and the Wilderness Committee, along with some local First Nations.
The land ear-marked for the reservoir is Class 1 and 2 agricultural land, which is fairly rare in British Columbia, being found only along the Peace River, where the dam is to be built, and the Fraser River in south western BC.
Some of the expected impacts of this project include the displacement of about 100 families, along with the many species of animals that roam the region. The flooding of a large area like this means that the carbon storage potential of that area is lost, and as the flooded forests starts to decay, the carbon that it has sequestered away will be released back into the environment. The construction of the dam and the reservoir will also affect the tourist potential of the region, sluice away unique landforms, and transform the region into something other than what it was, potentially something lesser.
Of course, this is the debate that is always faced whenever a dam project is proposed. While hydropower is the cleanest of the base-load power systems readily available, it still has its costs. At the moment, that cost is over 6 billion dollars, the lives of 100 families, and the rearrangement of three watersheds. All of this, to generate an amount of power equivalent to what would be saved through conservation if 75% of British Columbia’s 4.4 million people were to switch to compact fluorescent lighting.
British Columbia continues to grow, and while it is expected that a majority of that future growth in power requirements will be met by conservation methods, the rest has to come from somewhere, and at the moment, the most suitable is hydropower. Whether Site C is suitable, however, remains to be seen.