Why British Columbians Should Demand a Public Inquiry on the Site C Dam

For years British Columbians have been left in the dark about the most expensive public project in our history.

All of that came to an end on Wednesday when the B.C. Utilities Commission (BCUC) issued its final report on the Site C dam.

The results are, well, damning.

"This report indicates had the Liberals put this to the commission four years ago, Site C would not be built,” Mark Jaccard, a professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Resource and Environmental Management, told the Globe and Mail.

Normally the construction of new electricity generating facilities can’t begin without B.C.’s independent regulator issuing something called a “certificate of public convenience and necessity.”

But the Site C dam never had such a certificate. Why not? It was exempted from review under the previous BC Liberal government.

That means construction on the dam began without any independent, in-depth examination of the costs of the project or the demand for the project. Seriously. The B.C. government skipped the regular review process and instead ploughed ahead with a mega project with no idea whether it was a) needed or b) the most cost effective source of electricity.

That’s led to calls this week for a public inquiry into how (and, perhaps more importantly, why) BC Hydro and the BC Liberal government made that decision

“I would like to see a full inquiry to investigate how BC Hydro executives and the previous government essentially conspired to manufacture the case for Site C,” Marc Lee, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, told DeSmog Canada.

“As someone who strongly believes in public sector institutions and Crown corporations, to have our electricity utility lying to us, making up numbers and doing all sorts of spurious comparisons between its preferred option and the alternative is shameful.”

Shameful indeed.

Here’s just one example. In August, BC Hydro submitted to the BCUC that it had screened out solar energy on the basis of a cost estimate of $97/MWh in 2025. In response to a follow-up question from the commission, BC Hydro admitted the cost of solar is now only half that at $48/MWh.

While BC Hydro has argued for years that alternatives weren’t viable, the panel found that actually — even factoring in a $1.8 billion cost to terminate Site C and remediate the site — an alternative portfolio would still likely come in at a similar cost to Site C.

Can you imagine what would have happened if we’d actually reviewed the options before beginning construction?

Given the unit energy cost of renewables is significantly cheaper than Site C ($32/MWh compared to $44/MWh in the panel’s assessment), it’s pretty clear we wouldn’t be building a mega dam if we’d done the analysis.

Since the panel couldn’t rely on BC Hydro’s assessment of alternatives, they came out with their own alternative portfolio. What did that look like?

Under the most likely demand scenario, B.C. won’t need any new electricity generation at all until 2039, when we’ll need to start building 444 megawatts of wind (Site C is an 1,100 megawatt project). The rest of demand growth can be met through increased efficiency, conservation and measures to decrease demand spikes (such as offering cheaper rates if you use power at night, rather than during the supper hour).

So for all of the propaganda about the need for the Site C dam, essentially the panel found that instead of flooding 100 kilometres of river valley, infringing on treaty rights and pushing farmers out of their homes, we could chill for 22 years and then build a bit of wind power. Seriously.

The panel found BC Hydro’s mid-load forecast for electricity demand in B.C. “excessively optimistic” and noted there are risks that could result in demand being less than even BC Hydro’s lowest demand scenario. This is why we have independent reviews, people.

The icing on the cake? The panel was “not persuaded that the Site C project will remain on schedule” and found “the project is not within the proposed budget of $8.335 billion.”

Completion costs may actually be in excess of $10 billion, the panel found, and could be up to 50 per cent more than budgeted.

When DeSmog Canada first reported that Site C was behind schedule and over budget more than a year ago, what did BC Hydro do? They attacked us via a press release and co-ordinated with the premier’s office to discredit our reporting.

It turns out BC Hydro and the premier would have been better off spending some time assessing whether they were making the right choice, rather than smearing journalists reporting the facts

British Columbians deserve to know why the people in power ignored all common sense and pushed ahead with a project that is damaging, unnecessary and fiscally irresponsible. A public inquiry is the only way we’ll ever get those answers.

This article also ran in the Victoria Times Colonist on Nov. 8, 2017.

Photo: Province of British Columbia

Emma Gilchrist is a reporter, editor, public speaker and spreadsheet-keeper. She started her journalism career more than 15 years ago…

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