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The area of the Peace River just down the river where the proposed Site C Hydro Development Dam would be built.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's clean-energy industry and publicly owned BC Hydro have signed a pact that promises a co-operative hunt for opportunities to build new private power projects.

Hydro's construction of the massive Site C hydroelectric dam, however, means investors will have to be patient.

B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett described Wednesday's agreement as a "relationship-building" exercise designed to assure the gloomy private-energy sector that it still has a future in the province after Site C, which is being built on the Peace River.

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"But we made it really clear that we weren't going to have a large call [for new power] any time soon," Mr. Bennett said in an interview. "It might be 10 years."

In the absence of any concrete commitments, Paul Kariya, executive director of Clean Energy BC, said his members are relieved to have a foot in the door at BC Hydro. The agreement promises to "facilitate collaboration" and offers more transparency around BC Hydro's planning and forecasting.

Mr. Kariya says the province should be looking beyond Site C to accommodate a greater shift away from fossil fuels as it re-evaluates its current climate-action policies. The B.C. Environment Ministry is updating its plan in advance of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which starts in late November in Paris. Premier Christy Clark is attending the conference, although only the federal government has a seat at the table.

"I don't know if the [Energy] Minister has built in enough demand for the climate side of things," Mr. Kariya said in an interview.

"We have got to de-carbonize. If the Premier wants to go to Paris and have credibility, they are going to have to come through with some real plans, and I think all of those plans will lead to greater electrification."

He added he is hopeful the new federal Liberal government will deliver on promised green infrastructure funding – which will help Canada reposition on climate as well. Prime-minister-designate Justin Trudeau has pledged to set stringent greenhouse-gas-emissions standards for Canada.

While British Columbia has fallen behind Ontario and Quebec on new clean-energy investments, more than a dozen private projects are currently under construction – roughly $2-billion worth of investment in the past year.

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However, those projects are being built to meet BC Hydro's last significant call for clean-energy bids seven years ago. At that time, the province was intent on positioning itself as a "green-energy powerhouse" to rival Ontario's clean-energy conversion.

Despite BC Hydro's marked ambivalence toward working with private power companies, the sector grew on the strength of the direction set by the provincial government. Companies such as Sea Breeze Power Corp. rode high, for a time, on a wave of confidence in British Columbia, but today, the renewable energy company is trading as a penny stock.

The industry saw the government's decision to build the Site C dam as a major setback, and Mr. Kariya has spent the year pressing Mr. Bennett, the Energy Minister, for some certainty about the future. He said Wednesday's agreement is a result of that lobbying.

Currently about one-quarter of British Columbia's electricity is produced by the private sector, and Mr. Bennett said he is not taking a position on whether the balance is right. "Whether it is private or public doesn't seem as important to me or this government than, 'What is the cost of that electricity?' I don't think you'll find systemic bias against private at Hydro, as long as it is in the best interest of ratepayers."

Mr. Bennett told the industry on Wednesday that he is committed to the sector's growth. But with the construction of Site C to meet the province's expected demand, the province may have to look at exports to meet that promise. British Columbia's Energy Minister said he is in talks to sell more power to Alberta to help that province wean itself off coal-fired power.

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