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A model of the proposed Site C Dam at the Community Consultation Office in Fort St. John, B.C.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Chris O'Riley, who describes himself as "the person responsible for keeping the lights on" in B.C., told a panel reviewing Site C that the proposed dam is needed now – and that it will pay dividends for generations to come.

Mr. O'Riley, the executive vice-president for generation at BC Hydro, said the Crown utility has been "running full out since 2006" to meet power demands, and needs to expand to keep pace with the growing need.

Site C is by far the best choice, he told the Joint Review Panel (JRP) as it concluded public hearings Thursday, because even with a capital cost of $7.9-billion, it will produce low-cost energy for a century.

"There are three things that are unusual about large hydro plants and one is that you incur all the costs up front … so there's always sticker shock with them," he said. "The second thing that's unusual is that they produce a steady stream of [power] output that doesn't decline and it lasts for generations. There's nothing in our society that lasts like hydro plants."

If approved, Site C would be BC Hydro's third dam on the Peace River. The project is opposed by conservationists who say the environmental impact and loss of 3,000 hectares of agricultural land is too great, and by First Nations who say it will cause declines in the fish and game they traditionally depend on. A coalition of a dozen industry associations and chambers of commerce across B.C. have endorsed the project, saying it is needed to boost the provincial economy.

Mr. O'Riley said BC Hydro is currently rebuilding the Ruskin power plant, on the Stave River outside Vancouver.

"The bearings in it were made of wood," he said to emphasize how long the dam, which was built in 1929, has been generating power.

"In our society there's very few comparisons to this kind of investment," he said of Site C. "You might say maybe a major highway, like the Coquihalla, which has all these spinoff economic benefits in return for an upfront investment is an analogy to it. I think the point is it's very unusual and rare to find that type of asset."

Mr. O'Riley said BC Hydro has other options for generating more power, including upgrading existing dams and contracting with new independent power projects that are damming small rivers or tapping wind power, but none is as cost efficient as Site C.

"In the other portfolios … the costs continue to rise over time and in this portfolio, with this project, the costs decline over time," he said. "And that's the magic of a large hydro plant. It's a way that we can pay forward the benefits to a future generation."

Michael Savidant, commercial manager for the Site C project, told the Joint Review Panel that it would cost BC Hydro about $630-million more to get the same amount of power from alternative sources.

"You'd end up with a price increase that would be felt by all British Columbians," said Harry Swain, chair of the federal-provincial panel conducting the environmental assessment. "Another way of looking at it is that you'd be charging those folks $630-million to avoid the environmental consequences of Site C."

The JRP's Site C hearings began in early December and ended Thursday. The panel will accept written comments until Feb. 3, and then has 90 days to make a recommendation to government.

The project was first proposed in the 1970s, but was rejected in 1983 by the provincial government after a lengthy review. It was considered "dead" in the 1990s, but in 2007 the B.C. government revived it as a possibility. If approved, it would be built near Fort St. John and would generate more than 5,000 gigawatt hours of electricity, enough to power 450,000 homes.

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