On Monday, I joined some of the Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) directors for a tour of Renewable Power's McNair Creek hydroelectric project. The 10 megawatt plant is a good example of what a run-of-river hydro project can be: locally-owned, minimally impactful and sustainable in perpetuity.
That's not the case with the majority of independent power producer (IPP) applications. Most are publicly traded companies, predominantly those listed on the TSX Venture Exchange, and most don't have an economically feasible leg to stand on. While some critics fear a Gold Rush mentality is at play, with rivers being staked by global energy moguls, the reality is that many fledgling operations are literally pipe dreams - the only real threats they can pose are to long-term investors.
As a cornerstone of the B.C. Energy Plan, IPPs have been a boon to the provincial bottom line. The province forgoes the financial risk of development, while millions of dollars of licensing fees are a cash cow the province collects whether a project flies or not - and most don't. And those that are feasible produce power for B.C. with far less impact than the alternatives. A study produced by the Ontario Power Authority and Specialists in Energy Nuclear and Environmental Sciences Consultants shows run-of-river hydro to have less than one-tenth the overall environmental impact of coal-fired power, judging by variables such as contaminant emissions, CO2 output, radioactivity, land use and water impacts. It's more than three times less impactful than combined cycle natural gas power, more than twice as clean as nuclear power and twice as clean as photovoltaic panels, when you factor in the emissions produced in making the panels.
Since 2005, B.C. has been a net energy importer. Most of that imported energy comes from coal-fired plants in places like Nevada. Coal clearly isn't the way to go; from mining through combustion, it's about the most environmentally unsound activity possible. (Surprisingly, coal scores significantly worse than even nuclear power when it comes to radioactivity.) Between the levelling of mountains and the burning of millions of years of geologic carbon, it's just plain bad.
The bottom line is there will always be impacts arising from power production. And the effects of some run-of-river projects can, well, suck - compromising pristine rivers, laying down an ugly web of power lines weaving through the backcountry, funneling public resources into private companies. But once you employ a bit of perspective, run-of-river hydro emerges as the best - or more accurately, the least bad - form of power production. The free market aspect of IPPs also promises to end the era of cheap power in B.C. - and that too is a good thing. Bringing our power bills in line with spot market prices is a much more effective tool for reducing our power consumption (which is rocketing up, thanks in part to plasma TVs and all manner of iJunk) than feel-good campaigns to install fluorescent light bulbs.
As long as the need to produce more power exists, I have to give the nod to run-of-river hydro as the least painful way to do it.