For a generation, B.C. households and industries have enjoyed the legacy of W.A.C. Bennett's supposed folly, his massive investments in state-owned, renewable energy. The Mica and Revelstoke dams were designed decades ago to allow for future expansion. Lucky us: Today, engineers are back at those dams installing additional turbines.
For a generation, BC Hydro and its masters in Victoria have largely avoided investing in new capacity. That was supposed to change this year, when BC Hydro announced it needed $6-billion to upgrade its crumbling infrastructure, much of it built in the 1960s under the firm direction of Mr. Bennett.
But today's investment was deemed folly as well, for it would require hefty increases in Hydro rates to pay for it. Current Premier Christy Clark has put short-term politics first, ordering the Crown corporation to scale back its plans to the bare minimum to keep rate increases in check.
Trouble is, B.C. is looking at attracting massive investments – billions upon billions of dollars – in mining, shale gas and liquefied natural gas facilities. All are huge consumers in power. The decisions made now at BC Hydro will decide if those industries are going to be developed with renewable energy, or if they will burn natural gas, spewing millions of tonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions into the atmosphere.
Back when Mr. Bennett was digging out massive dams, Pat McGeer was a Liberal MLA sitting in opposition, railing against the financing schemes for those megaprojects and the rate hikes that soon followed. "The greatest myth that has ever been perpetrated on the people of British Columbia is that there is cheap power in the province," he wrote in his 1972 book Politics in Paradise.
Today, Dr. McGeer is a convert to Mr. Bennett's power legacy. "The end result," he allowed in an interview this week, "was spectacular."
Dr. McGeer, now running a neurological research lab at the University of British Columbia, once served as a director of BC Hydro. And he is appalled at how the Crown corporation has been allowed to slide for the past 25 years.
"What has been done since the time of W.A.C. Bennett? What's been done since is irresponsible," he said. "The strategy in the Bennett era was to build ahead of your needs. Sell the surplus until you need it, and you pay for the next project.
"Hydroelectric power is clean, it's reliable, it is saleable. We have the greatest opportunities anywhere in North America to develop that. And what have we got? We no longer have any ability to build dams so we are importing coal-fired power from Alberta."
BC Hydro is supposed to come up with additional capacity for all that new industrial development, but its recent planning documents suggest LNG facilities could provide their own energy, by burning fossil fuels.
That's an option for the shale gas developments too. BC Hydro warns that if it cannot supply the power to the region, developers will invest instead in gas compressors to run their wellheads. Just in the Montney basin, the difference between electric power and gas power would be one million tonnes of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere each year.
Environment Minister Terry Lake knows which option he'd prefer. But he admits he may not win the argument. "I would much rather see electrification occur than using thermal generation, but we have to look at the costs," he said in an interview.
"In politics there are short-term challenges and long-term challenges. When the economy is fragile and people are worried, government priorities need to reflect that." But he added: "I would argue we don't want to lose sight of long-term objectives."
Energy Minister Rich Coleman will take a recommendation to cabinet in the next few weeks on whether to water down BC Hydro's requirement to become energy self-sufficient by 2016. The current law would effectively force BC Hydro to build ahead of the curve – something that would make old man Bennett smile again. But this government has no appetite for such bold measures. Mr. Coleman's approach: "We don't want to build power that we aren't going to use."
Two photo ops on the Peace River in the northeast corner of B.C., separated by more than four decades:
Former Liberal leader Pat McGeer describes the ribbon-cutting for the Peace River dam in his book Politics in Paradise: "Three charter-flight loads of dignitaries and newsmen were flown in at BC Hydro's expense for the gala occasion, which was celebrated with typical partisan fervour." Premier W.A.C. Bennett climbed into a massive dump truck to drop the last load of dirt, before christening the dam with his own name.
Then-premier Gordon Campbell was aboard one of five planeloads of politicians, reporters and 120 "power pioneers" – retired employees who had worked on earlier hydro projects, including the W.A.C. Bennett dam – to Hudson's Hope. There, he announced he'd like to proceed with the Site C dam. The $360,000 tab was picked up once again by BC Hydro.
NDP energy critic John Horgan pointed out the chief difference between the two splashy events – Mr. Campbell was only promising to move the project ahead, he had no ribbon to cut. "You announced an environmental review," he noted, "not the second coming of Christ."