Hundreds of British Columbians who live off the grid, heating their homes with wood stoves and diesel generators, were looking forward to the luxury of electricity within a few years, but BC Hydro has put their dream on hold indefinitely.
The utility is halting plans to provide electricity to 11 remote British Columbia communities due to budget restraints.
Seymour Arm, Lillooet Lake and Upper Campbell Lake, among others, had expected to finally be able to enjoy one of the modern conveniences most people in B.C. take for granted.
BC Hydro's Remote Community Electrification Program was developed in 2005 to provide isolated communities with power. Of the 21 participating communities, eight have received power – seven First Nations communities and one civic community. But the utility has put all projects in the planning stage of development on hold.
Seymour Arm resident John Rivette, 83, estimates he spends close to $1,500 a month to heat and power his home. His largest expense is the diesel for his generator: $650 a month. Propane costs about $500 a month. He spends just under $1,900 a year on wood. He pays for it all from his pension and retirement fund – and he is still cold.
During the day he wears several layers of fleece and wool under his winter jacket. He tucks wool socks into fleece boots. He said every night he wakes at 11:30 p.m. and 3:30 a.m. to stoke the fire.
"I choose to live here, I love it here. I love the wilderness," he said of his home on Shuswap Lake northeast of Kamloops. "But power would free me up to go shopping or visit my children." He said in the winter, he can't leave because if the house gets too cold the pipes will freeze and burst.
David Lebeter, vice-president of field operations for BC Hydro, said putting the project on hold was a difficult decision. "We recognize that there was a lot of hard work and good work that was put in by communities," he said. But as the utility is forced to face cost pressures, some programs had to go. BC Hydro also recently announced rate increases of 15.6 per cent over the next two years.
Mr. Lebeter said he was "not at liberty to say" what the other affected communities are, saying only that they are located in the northern and southern Interior and on the coast. Only projects in the implementation phase of the project – Hartley Bay on the North Coast, and Good Hope Lake in northern B.C. – will go forward as planned.
In a followup e-mail, BC Hydro said some of the communities that will not get a chance to link to the grid had not committed to the project in the first place. Since BC Hydro does not know the status of different community's consultation with residents, the utility didn't feel it would be appropriate to share names, the e-mail said.
"Discussions with each community have been confidential and in some cases, there are commercial implications around energy projects."
John Castle, also from Seymour Arm, said in a referendum at the end of September last year people voted in favour of the plan to "electrify." Less than two months later, they received an e-mail from BC Hydro saying that their project was paused. Mr. Castle said consultations with Seymour Arm – which includes 81 year-round residents – had been ongoing for the past three years.
In winter, Mr. Castle said, he spends between $600 and $800 a month on fuel to heat and power his home, using a complex system of solar panels and a battery bank.
"I've devised my own power plan," Mr. Castle said, noting he is one of the luckier ones. "My neighbour is running a nine-kilowatt generator and his cost is probably between $1600-$1800."
Mr. Rivette said this is not the first time the community expected power, only to be disappointed. In 1996, residents had planned a ribbon cutting ceremony in celebration of the anticipated electricity. BC Hydro announced the project was cancelled two weeks before the event, stating that local First Nations bands did not support it.
Bruce McKerricher, a resident and unofficial spokesperson for the Upper Campbell Lake, said his community had done a community survey and gotten a high level of support. BC Hydro did an economic analysis and some assessments of the area and the next step was to secure funding.
"Some of the members were quite upset because we'd spent several years going down this path and everything had seemed pretty positive," he said. "So there was quite a bit of disappointment."
Gary Young, 67, from Lillooet Lake Estates, said his community has tried to join the grid, off and on, for the last 25 years. Lillooet Lake Estates includes approximately 30 permanent-resident households. The nearest domestic power line is six kilometres away. "I sometimes joke about running down to snap an extension chord on their power," he said.
When Lillooet Lake held a referendum, in May, 2013, 102 out of 152 property owners voted in favour. Mr. Young had hoped he would be able to plug in his Christmas lights last year. Instead, he has to wait.
"Every year we think this is the year, and then it gets pushed off," he said. "Originally it was going to be last year and then the hope was that it would be in 2014."