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Research blows BC Hydro's energy predictions out of the water

David Parkinson for the Globe and Mail/david parkinson The Globe and Mail

Since 1998, Brian Luckman has spent his summers hiking the Athabasca and Peyto glaciers in the Canadian Rockies, teasing skinny core samples from ancient trees.

Part of a team of Canadian and U.S. researchers, the University of Western Ontario geography professor recently published research in Science Express that shows BC Hydro's worst-case scenarios for its hydroelectric power generation may be optimistic.

At a time when the province is rethinking its commitment to move B.C. back to energy self-sufficiency, the research points to an extreme drought in the making - the harbinger of a potential energy crisis for water-power-dependent British Columbia.

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BC Hydro's hydroelectric resources rely primarily on annual stream flows from melting snowpack to fill its reservoirs. And the province's snowpack has shrunk - between 1956 and 2005, by 18 per cent.

The core samples taken by Dr. Luckman's team, thinner than a pencil, allowed researchers to look at the Rocky Mountain snowpack going back 800 years.

They record the climate patterns of El Niño/La Niña bringing rain or drought. They show the longer-term cycles known as the Pacific decadal oscillation, which seesaws wet and dry weather between north and south, from B.C. to California. And they hint at a larger pattern still: It has been more than 600 years since the trees recorded a steady dry period, both north and south, like the one we are in now.

"Certainly the 1930s and '40s would be probably the worst situation you could see from the available instrumental records. But the records further back would show conditions significantly worse. And we may be going into that," Dr. Luckman said in an interview. "The long-term prognosis is, you have to plan for a reducing snowpack."

Antoine Beriault is also charting the drought, using a different method. A water-stewardship officer in the Kootenays, he measures the annual volume of water in the snowpack. "I've got one snow course I've plotted, you can almost ski on the trend line over the past 42 years." Down, down, down. This year there was a bounce - when he made it up to the usual spot near Kimberley, at an elevation of 2,100 metres, the snow was up to his shoulders. Is the drought over, or is it just a blip? It's a question that matters to the province's energy security in the future.

In 2006 - five years after the drought-fuelled California energy crisis led to rolling blackouts and spiralling power costs - a committee representing business, BC Hydro and other stakeholders agreed that B.C. should aim for energy security. "It is our goal that B.C. is energy self-sufficient so that we have enough power right here in the province to meet our own needs," BC Hydro proclaimed at that time, "with enough insurance to respond to changes in opportunities."

The government's Throne Speech that year pledged to make British Columbia electricity self-sufficient by 2016. We are now halfway to that date, and BC Hydro still expects to import 11 per cent of the province's electricity this year.

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But the memories of the California experience are fading, and Energy Minister Rich Coleman is now preoccupied with finding ways to reduce proposed rate hikes. And he is questioning whether B.C. really needs as much "insurance" as the current law dictates.

"How we define self-sufficiency will determine the future rates for BC Hydro," he said. "We have to be prudent in how we measure this stuff."

Energy lawyer David Austin warns that Mr. Coleman is rolling the dice if he weakens the commitment to end BC Hydro's dependence on energy imports.

"What we learned from the California energy crisis in 2001? If you have to go shopping for electricity in a drought, the consequences could be disastrous to the economy of the province," he said. "When the drought comes - and it will come - we will be shopping for electricity at the worst possible time."

George Hoberg, a professor of natural-resource policy at the University of British Columbia, doesn't think relaxing the targets a bit would be dangerous.

However, he said it masks a more fundamental question that the government, fixated right now on reducing Hydro rates, doesn't want to talk about: Are we willing to pay more for clean hydroelectric power, or are we willing to settle for importing electricity from coal-fired plants?

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"I wish our politicians would explain why energy prices need to go up," he said, "rather than spending all their time trying to minimize them."

Mr. Coleman's Hydro review is due next week. He will likely look at cutting Hydro's workforce, tweaking the payments of debt and dividends, and lightening the requirement to prepare for the worst. It will allow him to offer rate relief to consumers, but a frank conversation about the potential consequences won't be high on his list


By the numbers

1993: The first year that BC Hydro had to import electricity since completing its large hydroelectric power plants in the 1960s. The shortfall was blamed on "unprecedented" water shortages that were soon to become a familiar occurrence.

9: Years, out of the past 10, that British Columbia has needed to import electricity to meet its domestic needs. Low water supply is blamed.

$2.6-billion: The cost of B.C.'s net electricity imports over the past decade, according to figures provided by BC Hydro. That figure may be low, as the corporation also has $879-million in power purchases that are booked in a deferral account. The auditor general is now investigating how that debt is accounted for.

2016: The year that BC Hydro is required by law to be self-sufficient again, meeting the province's energy needs even in a severe drought.

656: Gigawatt hours of power that BC Hydro will still need to buy in 2014 to meet anticipated domestic power needs - and that is if water levels are normal.

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