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Protracted drought leaves hydro-power-dependent B.C. importing electricity

Click to play video: 'BC Hydro importing power as drought drags on in province’s northeast'
BC Hydro importing power as drought drags on in province’s northeast
With drought conditions persisting in the province's northeast, dams are producing less power and BC Hydro is having to import more electricity. Richard Zussman reports. – Dec 19, 2023

Amid a growing demand for power and challenging weather conditions, British Columbia found itself in the unusual position this year of importing electricity.

A sustained period of drought in the province, particularly in the northeast, left both the Columbia Region and Peace River dams at historic lows and with a resulting reduced capacity for power generation.

“This year has been an extraordinary one and has made Hydro a net importer,” Energy Minister Josie Osborne told Global News.

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B.C. government to go ahead with Site C dam

The impact wasn’t small. BC Hydro imported about 10,000-gigawatt hours of electricity this year, about a fifth of its total load, at a cost of more than $450 million.

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“The impact of finances is not immediate, it will take some time,” public policy researcher Richard McCandless explained.

“Luckily they built up a surplus in their exports over the last few years, so they can live off the fat for a while, but then it’s going to really hit their bottom line if this drought continues.”

To address future concerns, the province is calling on proposals from independent power producers to increase the system’s capacity.

But that will take time, and could come at a cost, particularly as the province moves towards greater electrification, including electric vehicles, heat pumps and in the liquified natural gas industry.

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“When you add it up, the minister says we have a surplus, and I am going blue in the face — it doesn’t make sense,” BC United Energy Critic Tom Shypitka said.

BC Hydro is scheduled to bring the new Site C Dam online next year, which will produce another 5,100 gigawatt hours of electricity per year.

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The BC United opposition believes it should have been activated this year, which would have offset some of the Crown corporation’s power needs.

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“The only thing I can think of is they are ill-prepared, and there is an election and that is when the rates will be impacted,” Shypitka said.

Osborne said the decision on when to fill the new dam’s reservoir was made by BC Hydro, not the province, and that it was a prudent one made with safety concerns in mind.

All the reservoir capacity in the world, however, won’t mean much if there isn’t water to fill the dams.

In the short term, the drought outlook does not look good, according to Environment Canada meteorologist Armel Castellan.

“We are looking at many regions, astoundingly, right across the province from the Okanagan right up to the northeast of B.C. with their driest year on record,” he said.

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That’s saying quite a lot, some places are at 50, 55 per cent of normal, and they’re driest on record with places that have records going back over 100 years in some cases.”

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In the Peace Region, home to two major existing dams and the new Site C facility, he said current temperatures are close to 20 C above seasonal averages.

Meteorologists are also expecting a strong El Nino climate bringing warmer weather as the winter progresses.

Those conditions could mean higher freezing levels and more limited snowpack at winter’s end.

“That likely means a freshet or spring melt that’s muted, less problematic,” he said.

“And of course as soon as the spring melt is over at mid and higher elevations, you start dealing with the curing of the fuels, in the forests, and of course that just spells out a similar situation to what we saw in 2023, which of course started very early in the wildfire season.”

While it’s impossible to forecast what conditions will look like in months, nevertheless years, McCandless said it may be time for BC Hydro to begin planning for worst-case scenarios, including a more drought-heavy future.

“We may have to start seriously looking at a different kind of base power, such as natural gas,” he said.

“The decision is not going to rest with hydro, it is going to be a government decision.”

Osborne said the government and BC Hydro are well aware of the potential impacts of climate change, and that BC Hydro is planning for the future both with drought management plans and with a series of calls for power starting in 2024.

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