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B.C. First Nations forced to shelve clean energy projects as Site C dam overloads grid

BC Hydro won’t even consider purchasing new electricity from clean energy providers until at least 2030 thanks to the Site C dam

Dozens of First Nations communities with plans for clean energy projects have been stonewalled by the B.C. government’s decision to continue construction of the Site C dam, says Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.  

“The big reason why no one’s able to build clean energy right now is because of Site C,” Sayers, a former chief of the Hupacasath First Nation, told The Narwhal.

“Site C is bringing too much power to the grid. We don’t need it.”

The NDP came to power with a plan called PowerBC, a comprehensive blueprint for energy projects that would have created jobs all over the province, including in First Nations communities.

But BC Hydro has shut down the program that supported development of new renewable energy projects, forcing First Nations like the T’Sou-ke and Tla-o-qui-aht on Vancouver Island to put their detailed plans for wind and run of river projects on hold because BC Hydro won’t buy the electricity.

The vast majority of B.C.’s First Nations are eager to engage in clean energy, said Sayers, a member of the First Nations Clean Energy Group and adjunct professor with the Peter Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria.

“These clean energy projects bring revenue, they bring jobs, they bring pride. They bring capacity building, business skills. It’s amazing.”

Sayers said she stepped down earlier this year from B.C.’s Climate Solutions and Clean Growth Advisory Council because of the NDP government’s decisions to continue construction of the Site C dam and to promote development of a carbon-intensive LNG industry.

“I cannot work with a government that does not share my values,” she said. “The group would be working towards recommending reducing GHG [emissions] and the province would be promoting industries increasing GHG [emissions]. Why spend my time working on something that the province is working against?”  

Run of river feasibility studies now collecting dust on Vancouver Island

The Tla-o-qui-aht, on west Vancouver Island near Tofino, have three small run of river projects that supply power for 2,000 homes.

The nation completed feasibility studies for building four more low-impact run of river projects on mountain creeks in their traditional territory, with the understanding that BC Hydro would purchase the power, said Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation natural resource manager Saya Masso.

“We’ve spent all this time investigating, preparing, bringing fibre optic cables, removing all the hurdles to get these things going, and now the government stops the standing offer program because there’s a surplus of electricity,” Masso said in an interview.

“Site C has created a surplus of energy for BC Hydro and now they don’t want to buy green energy.”

Sayers said more than 125 First Nations out of 203 in B.C. are already involved in clean energy in some way.

But the government “didn’t talk to any of the First Nations that are producing power,” before making a decision to proceed with construction of the $10.7 billion Site C dam, she said.

The B.C. First Nations Clean Energy Working Group, representing 78 nations, tried unsuccessfully to obtain a meeting with Energy Minister Michelle Mungall prior to the government’s December decision to proceed with the Site C dam, to discuss the role of First Nations-led solar, wind and run of river projects in supplying power to the grid, Sayers said.

The minister finally granted members of the group — including 14 chiefs — a meeting in March, but Sayers said they haven’t heard back since.

“Each of them explained what they want to do in clean energy and why. They’re well aware of what we want. But no movement yet. It’s sad.”

Government outlines B.C.’s power surplus

In an emailed statement to The Narwhal, the energy ministry said it will be engaging with the First Nations Clean Energy Working Group in the “near future,” as part of the Site C dam “mitigation measures.”

The ministry confirmed B.C. will have a surplus supply of energy until the early 2030s (and that’s according to BC Hydro’s projections about energy demand, which an independent review last fall found were regularly overstated).

After 2030, the energy ministry said “there may be opportunities” for energy purchase agreements for larger scale independent power producer projects, including those developed or supported by First Nations.

For now, the government, BC Hydro and First Nations are working together to develop an Indigenous clean energy program, the ministry said in its statement.

But that program is intended only for small scale projects — “well under 100 MW”— according to the ministry. (By comparison, BC Hydro says the Site C dam would produce 1,100 megawatts of power, the equivalent energy consumed by 450,000 homes.)

And even those small scale projects can’t come online until the Site C dam becomes operational in 2024 or 2025, the ministry stated.

That frustrates First Nations like the T’Sou-ke, which partnered with Timberwest Forest Corp. and EDP Renewables Canada Ltd. to plan a $750-million wind energy project on southern Vancouver Island with 100 turbines.

The project would have provided 300 megawatts of power, or more than one-quarter of the energy produced by the Site C dam.

T’Sou-ke First Nations Chief Gordon Planes pointed out that money for the wind project “wouldn’t have come from taxpayers.”

“And [it would have provided] so many jobs in construction and so many jobs afterwards,” Planes told The Narwhal.

“But [former B.C. energy minister] Bill Bennett said he didn’t need the power. And that was at the time of Site C.”

Planes, whose nation’s administration building runs entirely on solar, said “it doesn’t make sense” that First Nations clean energy projects like his community’s wind proposal can’t move forward.

Renewable energy projects bring people together and are consistent with Indigenous values because they use natural resources in a sustainable way, he pointed out.

“It’s sending a really good signal to everyone that we’re playing our part in helping Mother Earth. It wouldn’t have been just for our First Nation. It would have been for other First Nations as well.”

Is there a future for First Nations clean energy projects?

Sayers, a Clean Energy B.C. board member, said First Nations communities should have the opportunity to develop large-scale clean power projects as well as small ones.

“I’d like First Nations communities to have the ability to create clean energy projects in the communities that want them to have no limitation on size, because some First Nations really do want to do big wind farms.”

Jae Mather, executive director of Clean Energy B.C., said only a handful of First Nations-led clean energy projects are currently moving forward due to the Site C dam, and most of those projects are tiny.

The exception is a solar farm to be built by the Upper Nicola Band, which negotiated an energy purchase agreement with BC Hydro in return for allowing transmission lines through its traditional territory in the Okanagan.

“If you showed up right now with a billion dollars and said ‘I want to build wind right now’ you can’t do anything,” Mather told The Narwhal.

“All the old [energy purchase] programs are on hold and there’s nothing new.”

The Canadian Wind Energy Association pulled out of B.C. in 2016, saying it would focus on provinces more friendly to wind power.

Alberta recently bought wind power for $37 per megawatt hour, compared to $120 or more a megawatt hour that the power from Site C will cost B.C. ratepayers, according to independent energy experts.

The energy ministry said a review of energy purchases, including the standing offer program that was shut down as Site C progressed, will be part of the recently launched review of BC Hydro.

The first phase of the review will be conducted by BC Hydro and the energy ministry. An “expert panel” will be struck later this year to provide recommendations.

Energy demand in B.C. has been flat since 2005. Even without the Site C dam, the province has so much extra power that BC Hydro is paying independent power producers millions of dollars a year not to produce energy. Some experts say that if B.C. is to meet its climate targets, the province will need to rapidly electrify much of its economy, including transportation, which would require much more electricity. However, those policies don’t yet exist.

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