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Site C dam laying groundwork for surge in energy exports

The construction of the massive Site C dam lays the foundation for a major expansion of green-energy exports - a surge that will transform renewable energy into an industry that rivals mining in B.C., the province's Energy Minister says.

The construction of the dam, approved by the province on Monday, is expected to cost more than $6-billion, and conservationists have vowed to fight the proposal as it moves to the environmental assessment stage.

The government insists that the dam's 900-megawatt capacity is needed for domestic use. But it would allow the province to export more power - a strategy Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom will set out in legislation later this spring - by adding to the province's overall electricity production.

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"We have the opportunity to take the resource of electrical generation and have it work for people in British Columbia to a far greater degree," Mr. Lekstrom said in an interview Tuesday.

"We're an export province, we are blessed with an abundance of natural resources that we utilize. Forestry, mining, oil and gas … I think electrical generation can do the same thing."

The publicly owned utility, BC Hydro, is expanding clean power purchases from independent power producers, but many of those projects, such as wind power or run-of-the-river, do not provide the reliable capacity that exporters want. By having a greater supply of so-called firm energy from large hydro-electric dams, the province will be in a stronger position to sell its power to other western provinces and the United States.

The biggest market, however, is California, and the province is seeking to persuade state legislators to allow larger power projects to qualify for renewable power premiums.

Mr. Lekstrom said he is confident B.C. will overcome California's objections to large hydro-electric dams.

"I think they are going to have to re-evaluate that. When I look at hydro-electric facilities, it beats the heck out of coal-fired and nuclear power generation."

But the province has no firm numbers concerning the potential for exports. Mr. Lekstrom cited BC Hydro forecasts that the province's electricity demand will increase by 20 to 40 per cent over the next two decades. That assumes no savings from conservation.

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However, he said, BC Hydro has low-balled its projections because the utility's supply and demand figures do not estimate the growth in exports or in demand for electric cars and other fuel-switching trends.

"That's their forecast, there are things in there that weren't taken into consideration," he said in an interview. In addition to an aggressive export plan, Mr. Lekstrom said, he expects "far greater electrification as well, so there is a difference there."

Paul Kariya, executive director of the Independent Power Producers, said he agrees that BC Hydro has been underestimating the future demand for energy.

"We think the demand is greater than they are forecasting," he said. BC Hydro isn't set to update its long-term energy plans until next year.

Meanwhile, Premier Gordon Campbell dismissed suggestions that he is pressing ahead with the mega-project to ensure a legacy that just might bear his name by the time it is finished in 2020.

"None of this is about me," he told reporters in Victoria. "It's about what we are trying to accomplish as a government to provide British Columbians with the economic opportunities, the jobs they need and the support they need so they can be the best they can be."

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Mr. Campbell took a fleet of aircraft to stage his Site C announcement on Monday on the banks of the Peace River. The backdrop for the press conference was the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, named after the last premier whose legacy remains his massive hydro-electric power projects.

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