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The area of the Peace River where the proposed Site C hydroelectric dam project could be built near Fort St. John, B.C., on Jan. 17, 2013.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

With the clock ticking on a government decision on Site C, an industry group has released a study that claims the province could save up to $1-billion by investing in multiple, small "clean energy" facilities instead of one, massive dam.

Along with saving money, a stable of smaller energy projects would provide other advantages, including more opportunities for First Nations involvement and more flexibility to adapt to changing technology or markets, the study concludes.

The report, prepared by London Economics International, a Boston-based consulting firm, and released Thursday by Clean Energy B.C., adds to a continuing debate around Site C, which BC Hydro bills as the cleanest and most cost-effective way to meet future energy needs and opponents decry as an environmental and social disaster in the making.

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Clean Energy commissioned the study to provide up-to-date information to the province, which is expected to make a decision on Site C before the end of the year.

"If government is going to make a decision, then let's make sure at least that we put our best foot forward and let's commission this study," Clean Energy executive director Paul Kariya said on Thursday.

"What government does with the study, whether they agree or disagree – we've got that dialogue going on right now."

That dialogue is taking place as the government mulls whether to proceed with Site C, which would be the third dam on B.C.'s Peace River and has a current price estimate of $7.9-billion.

The project, first proposed in the 1970s, cleared significant hurdles this week when it received environmental approvals from the federal and provincial governments.

But it faces questions about its potential cost and even whether it is needed to meet future energy needs.

B.C. Hydro says the province's electricity needs are expected to grow by about 40 per cent over the next 20 years, that conservation and efficiency programs won't be enough to fill the gap and that Site C is the best option when financial, technical, environmental and economic factors are taken into account.

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Clean Energy's new report challenges that position, and maintains the province could save up to $1-billion over 70 years – the projected life of the Site C dam – by pursuing smaller projects including wind installations and run-of-river hydro projects.

Such projects have a contentious history in B.C., including concerns about environmental impacts from river hydro installations over the past decade.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett acknowledged First Nations' support for the independent power sector.

"The fact that First Nations, generally speaking, like the renewable power business, they like [independent power producers], it is … a steady stream of revenue, goes on for decades, it is viewed as clean technology – certainly not the kind of environmental impact that a great big dam and great big reservoir would have – we are fully aware of that," Mr. Bennett said.

"That's a factor in comparing the two ways of going about this."

Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, an alliance of coastal aboriginal groups, said many First Nations are looking at small-scale energy projects as a source of jobs, income and investment and hopes the province will take a close look at the notion of numerous, smaller projects.

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Two existing dams on the Peace River have already provided the bulk of the province's power for decades and had an impact on people and the landscape in the northeast, he said.

"The people of the northeast have taken enough of a hit – it's time for people in the rest of the province to step up, and step up in ways they have already agreed to."

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