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Flat demand puts private power projects on the back burner

John Horgan once called it "junk power" – the electricity privately produced in British Columbia for sale to B.C. Hydro.

Next week Mr. Horgan, the B.C. NDP energy critic, will be touring the Kwoiek Creek hydroelectric project near Lytton, at the invitation of one of the province's biggest private power producers, Innergex Renewable Energy Inc.

What does he expect to see? "A modest run-of-river project with zero impact on fish," he says. Also, a source of power in a region that is underserved by B.C. Hydro. And a significant number of local first nations workers on the job site. Tick, tick, tick. All good reasons for the NDP to approve of this kind of project.

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This isn't a story about flip-flops – the New Democrats have made room for some independent power projects in the past. It's about a thaw.

Mr. Horgan's party campaigned against run-of-river projects and private power in 2009. Then, his party toured run-of-river projects to denounce them. As recently as this past spring, Mr. Horgan vowed to impose a moratorium on new contracts with independent producers.

This week, Mr. Horgan avoided the M-word. For what it's worth. Because in the short term, at least, it looks like a moratorium would be a moot point.

Mr. Horgan, who is in line to be the next energy minister if his party wins the election in May, believes the province has more than enough supply to meet its electricity demands.

"North America is awash in energy right now, and demand in B.C. is flat. We haven't had the industrial development that was forecast," Mr. Horgan said in an interview this week. "The challenge is, we purchased a whole bunch of energy we don't need at a price the market is now demonstrating is wildly high."

The B.C. Liberal position is not far from his. The Liberals killed their self-sufficiency targets they would have required B.C. Hydro to meet demand even in a drought. And the Liberal government has paved the way for LNG plants to run on natural gas, potentially saving the province from what would otherwise be the single biggest spike in electricity demand in the coming decade. Mr. Horgan agrees with both of those changes.

So both the Liberals and the NDP are largely content with the status quo.

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The Coastal First Nations are not. They may not have a veto on the development of LNG, but they certainly will shape the social licence for these proposed projects.

The creation of a liquefied natural gas industry in B.C. is a critical plank in the Premier's jobs plan, and the NDP supports LNG. But the Coastal First Nations are building the case for developing that industry with renewable energy, rather than just leaving the individual plants to self-generate their power needs by burning natural gas.

"We would like to see this done the cleanest way possible and that doesn't mean using 'inside the fence' gas drives. That is probably the dirtiest way you could do this industry," said Art Sterritt, executive director of the organization that represents aboriginal interests on the north and central coast, and Haida Gwaii.

Mr. Sterritt says there is enough potential for renewable energy in B.C.'s northwest to supply all the potential LNG plants now in the planning stages. But he sees no political will from either party now to make that happen.

The president of Innergex, Michel Letellier, doesn't disagree with Mr. Sterritt, but he is sanguine about the political climate. He calculates that whichever party holds power in B.C. next May, they will have to come back to clean energy.

"Governments will change, policies will go one way or the other depending on the flavour of the month," Mr. Letellier observed.

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Right now the reservoirs are full and the spot market price for electricity is low – there is no urgency to worry about developing new renewable power. But those circumstances are apt to change, and building green power could once again be the flavour of the month.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More


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