A record number of investors and other stakeholders in the clean energy sector gathered in Vancouver this week to plan for an uncertain future. There is a potentially hostile B.C. New Democratic Party waiting in the wings, and an incumbent B.C. Liberal government sending mixed signals about the desire for private power projects.
Amid "a fair bit of uncertainty" there is great potential – and significant dollars – waiting for a clear signal from the B.C. government about how the province will meet its growing need for electricity, said Paul Kariya, executive director of Clean Energy BC.
"We are hedging toward optimism," he said in an interview Tuesday. "Maybe there has been a bit of dithering and inconsistency from the Liberals, and I think the NDP have made some statements they probably want to take back. But we're too established to be pushed off the landscape."
British Columbia's quest to be the nation's clean energy powerhouse was led, not so long ago, by the Premier's Office. The 2009 Speech from the Throne promised that renewable energy was "this century's greenfield of opportunity."
Since then, the focus of the Christy Clark government has shifted to keeping hydro rates down. Last June, BC Hydro scrapped plans for a feed-in-tariff – a measure that had been promised to provide incentives for independent power producers to encourage investment in renewable energy. As well, the province has changed the Clean Energy Act to encourage the use of natural gas to create energy.
Marlo Raynolds of Calgary-based BluEarth Renewables Inc. was a delegate at this week's Clean Energy B.C. conference. He said his company is looking to invest $1-billion in building energy projects in Canada, but the uncertainty of the political landscape – no matter which party is in office after the election next spring – means that B.C. is not a shoe-in.
"The biggest challenge in B.C. is the level of uncertainty," Mr. Raynolds said.
The B.C. NDP has been critical of private power producers in the past and has yet to disclose its position in the coming election. But the most important signal is still in the works: B.C. Hydro is scheduled to deliver its long-term plan for energy needs – the Integrated Resource – to the province in December.
The government hasn't decided yet when it will release the plan to the public, because the biggest factor in Hydro's future growth is still up in the air. The government is pushing to create a liquefied natural gas industry. If even two plants are built, and they use electricity to convert natural gas to liquid, BC Hydro could see a 25-per-cent growth in its total demand. If the plants are burning natural gas for power, however, that could be significantly lower. Those talks between the government and proponents of LNG are under way.
"That negotiation needs to proceed fairly quickly if you want to provide clarity to the renewable energy sector of what potential opportunities are in the province," Mr. Raynolds said. "Otherwise, quite frankly, investment will go elsewhere."
In the 2009 election, the NDP campaigned strongly against private power projects. With the polls currently projecting an NDP victory in the next election, Mr. Kariya and others in the sector have seen some signs that the party's position has shifted.
NDP energy critic John Horgan met with one of the biggest independent power producers in B.C., Innergex, last week and expects to tour a run-of-river project next month. "I think the push [for private power] was wrong-headed and has put BC Hydro in jeopardy financially, in the short term," Mr. Horgan said. "But that's not to say all run-of-river projects are bad. Nor is it all on the backs of BC Hydro to provide this service." The renewable energy sector will have to wait for the NDP's election platform, however, for more details.