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Photo of 1.4 m diameter HDPE (low pressure) penstock installation at Fitzsimmons Creek in Whistler. (Globe files/Globe files)
Photo of 1.4 m diameter HDPE (low pressure) penstock installation at Fitzsimmons Creek in Whistler. (Globe files/Globe files)

B.C. launches power program to take on Ontario Add to ...

Not content to watch Ontario's attractive rates for green energy draw billions of dollars in investment, the B.C. government is flirting with new rules to accommodate more clean electricity projects.

The proposed changes fall far short of Ontario's controversial feed-in tariff (FIT) program, which offers premium rates in long-term purchasing contracts for renewable energy projects.

The B.C. government is looking at adopting its own FIT regulations this fall, but it will pay higher rates for green power only from "emerging technologies." In B.C., solar power and wind power - a significant share of Ontario's clean energy campaign - won't qualify.

"We're going to be more selective, not just throw as much as we can at the wall and see what sticks," B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett said in an interview on Monday. "In B.C., we are going to be more attuned to what is good for the ratepayer."

In addition to the B.C. version of FIT, investors are expecting larger projects to qualify for long-term contracts - at higher rates - under B.C.'s standing-offer program. Under that program, BC Hydro agrees to purchase energy from small energy projects at long-term, fixed rates.

Quebec-based Innergex Renewable Energy has already invested $240-million in three B.C. power projects including the Fitzsimmons Creek power plant, which went online this year. It's the largest project to date to be built under the standing-offer program.

The milky, glacier-fed waters of Fitzsimmons Creek make a steep drop - 250 metres from the intake just outside the boundary of Garibaldi Provincial Park, down to the generator located on the outskirts of the resort village of Whistler. The force of that descent, funneled through penstock a little more than a metre wide, creates enough energy to power the Whistler-Blackcomb ski operations.

B.C. environment minister Barry Penner toured the operation last Friday with Richard Blanchet, Innergex's vice-president for the West. Mr. Penner sees this as a showcase for green energy - and delights in reminding his Innergex hosts that the opposition New Democratic Party oppose such projects.

The single turbine is housed in an unobtrusive shed tucked away behind the sledding centre that was in the spotlight during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

The company has a 40-year contract that pays almost $90 per megawatt hour, which will be adjusted for inflation over time. The project can produce up to eight megawatts of energy during the summer runoffs, although during Mr. Penner's visit, a computer monitor showed the real-time output was running at 5.2 megawatt hours of energy. The bull trout that inhabit the river here get first call on the water.

Jean Trudel, an executive with Innergex, said his company has three or four projects on the drawing board in B.C. if the province allows projects of up to 15 megawatts to qualify for the standing offer. He believes it is a done deal. Mr. Bennett said no final decision has been made.

"B.C. seems to be moving forward," Mr. Trudel said. "For us, we feel there is certainty as long as the Liberal government stays in place. That's where the uncertainty is, if there is a change in government."

The next provincial election is more than two years away, but the B.C. Liberal government's struggles over the implementation of the harmonized sales tax has spooked investors. If an election were called now, Mr. Trudel would likely be dealing with an NDP government that campaigned against run-of-the-river projects.

The company is keeping its options alive in Ontario. "Ontario is the place to be if you want to do solar power," Mr. Trudel noted.

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