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British Columbia Site C won’t stifle independent power projects, B.C. Energy Minister says

Construction of the $400-million Meikle Wind Energy Project, set to become B.C.’s largest wind farm, begins this week near Tumbler Ridge, site pictured.

Independent power projects still have "a great future" in British Columbia, despite the government's decision to go ahead with a massive hydroelectric dam on the Peace River, says provincial Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett.

Proof of the continued promise of IPPs is being illustrated in northern B.C. this week, he said, where construction is beginning on the Meikle Wind Energy Project. The $400-million wind farm, with a capacity of 185 megawatts, is the largest project of its kind ever undertaken in B.C. Its 61 wind turbines will generate enough electricity each year to power 54,000 homes.

Start of the construction phase will be marked by a ceremony involving government and industry officials in Tumbler Ridge on Tuesday.

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"The reason I'm going there is to celebrate that we are continuing to build renewable energy projects in the province," Mr. Bennett said in an interview before boarding a flight. "Once we get past Site C, that is what you are going to see in this province in terms of where the new electricity comes from."

Last year, the future of IPPs was in doubt after the government approved a BC Hydro proposal to build Site C, a 1,100-megawatt dam near Fort St. John. The $8.8-billion project will be built downstream of the existing W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon dams, maximizing power-generating efficiencies by reusing water already stored behind reservoirs.

"There's no question that Site C can give us the cheapest electricity for the ratepayer but … there's no other project like Site C on the horizon," said Mr. Bennett. "You have no other situation where you have a river that's been dammed up twice. In future, really the only place for the province to get electricity, given that we're not building any additional dams … is from wind and run-of-the river and solar and all the renewable technologies."

The Meikle Wind project was awarded a 25-year electricity purchase agreement by BC Hydro in 2008 and Mr. Bennett said when the contract was signed it was assumed the energy would be needed even if Site C was approved, as it eventually was last December. Site C is facing four court challenges from First Nations and environmental groups but, if the legal hurdles are cleared, construction is expected to start this summer.

"When I announced Site C, not that anybody was listening, but I said over and over again this decision is being made in the context of BC Hydro having a number of renewable energy projects that were still in the pipeline, still going to be built," he said. "It's not like Site C forecloses all opportunities for renewable energy forever," he said. "We're not going to get [the Site C] increment of 1,100 megawatts of energy from IPPs, but they sure have a great future."

Michael Garland, president and CEO of Pattern Energy Group LP, the parent company of Meikle Wind, said the project will benefit the province.

"Over the first 25 years of operations, Meikle Wind is estimated to contribute over $70-million in payments for property taxes, the Crown lease … and community benefits," he said in a statement.

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Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association, said there will be more such projects in B.C.

"As British Columbia's electricity demand grows, wind energy represents the bulk of [the province's] lowest-cost, emission-free renewable-energy-generation opportunities," he said.

In its environmental assessment certificate application, Meikle Wind said the project will have little impact on wildlife habitat.

In granting environmental approval, however, the government required the company to implement a monitoring plan for birds and bats.

A study published last year states that 4,020 bats and 1,744 birds were killed by 1,376 wind turbines across Canada between 2006 and 2012. The study, by the Canadian Wind Energy Association, Environment Canada, Ontario Natural Resources and Bird Studies Canada, collected data at 50 wind sites nationally, including two in B.C.

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