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Run-of-river power projects like the one at the north end of Harrison Lake near Chilliwack are part of BC Hydro’s strategy for connecting isolated communities to the grid. In December, 11 communities learned they would not be hooked up by the utility. (Rick Collins for The Globe and Mail)
Run-of-river power projects like the one at the north end of Harrison Lake near Chilliwack are part of BC Hydro’s strategy for connecting isolated communities to the grid. In December, 11 communities learned they would not be hooked up by the utility. (Rick Collins for The Globe and Mail)

Snubbed by BC Hydro, small towns see opportunity off mainstream grid Add to ...

Some small communities that learned in December that BC Hydro would not be providing them with electricity as planned have curbed their disappointment, saying mainstream power might not be a good fit for them anyway. They’re now turning their attention to alternative energy sources.

Residents of Wuikinuxv Village near Port Hardy and Hesquiaht near Tofino say renewable energy could be key to solving the problems that have long plagued their towns.

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Frank Johnson, former long-time chief of Wuikinuxv, said power has been an issue for as long as he can remember. In the late 1970s, the community experienced a blackout that spanned seven months. This was disastrous for residents who relied on freezers to preserve their fish and wild game.

“Everybody had to dump the freezer food into the river. It all went bad,” he said.

Children went to school with no lights, no power and no heat. And the community had no way to access outside help.

Today, there are fewer blackouts, thanks to new generators, but the band is sliding deeper and deeper into debt.

“Everything breaks down. The wear and tear on them is constant,” said Mr. Johnson. Houses and roads have fallen into disrepair because all the band’s money goes toward generator diesel and maintenance.

Doug Brown co-manages Wuikinuxv’s band office and was hired to help salvage the community’s finances.

“We basically have to cannibalize our other programs and services in order to feed the diesel bill,” said Mr. Brown.

The band was in the planning process of BC Hydro’s Remote Community Electrification Program when the utility sent an official e-mail in December informing Wuikinuxv and 10 other isolated communities the project would be put on hold indefinitely.

For Wuikinuxv, initial disappointment at the cancellation of Hydro’s plans dissolved when band administration decided to revisit the idea of building a hydroelectric power plant on the nearby Nicknaqueet River. Mr. Brown believes consistent, affordable energy will allow the community to explore economic development opportunities such as opening a wood processing plant.

Providing power for isolated places is complicated and costly. BC Hydro estimates the utility will save $40-million by halting projects in the 11 communities.

“Construction is always more technically challenging and expensive because of the remote location and limited access for equipment and materials,” wrote David Lebeter, vice-president of field operations at BC Hydro, in an e-mailed statement.

The utility estimates 52 communities are currently off of the main power grid in British Columbia. Generator-powered communities face several concerns including high energy costs, limited economic opportunities, substantial greenhouse-gas production and potential health issues from harmful emissions.

Susan Anderson, the acting tribal manager of Wuikinuxv, said the initial cost of building a plant would be high – an estimated $8-million according to the latest assessment. But she said that over time, the investment would solve the community’s energy problems.

Hydroelectric operating costs are lower than other energy sources and thanks to British Columbia’s cost-based rate regulations, hydroelectricity rates are nearly unaffected by energy markets, unlike oil and gas prices.

Darren Edgar from the Kitasoo First Nation, in Klemtu on the Sunshine Coast, credits his community’s self-sufficiency to the micro-hydro system it built in the late 1970s. Klemtu, whose reserve population is 360, owns and runs a seafood processing plant built a couple years after the hydro system was installed.

The hydro plant is owned, operated and maintained by the band, costing only $47 a month per household to cover minimal equipment maintenance. The community uses its generator now only as a back up. It costs $500 an hour to run.

Cecil Sabbas, an administrator at the Hesquiaht band office, said he’s trying to be positive about BC Hydro’s December announcement. He said he hopes the announcement will motivate the community to prioritize reducing its impact on the environment by looking into an alternative energy plan.

Roughly 50 people live in Hesquiaht. And Mr. Sabbas estimates they pay between $300,000 and $400,000 a year just for diesel fuel.

“With them putting us on hold, that creates other opportunities for us,” he said.

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