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As its name suggests, B.C. Hydro counts on water to keep the lights on, tapping a network of dams and reservoirs to churn out electricity around the clock. That network has provided British Columbians with some of the cheapest electricity on the continent.

It also helps British Columbians feel a little smug when it comes to climate change. Hydro projects, once up and running, don't generate greenhouse gases, giving B.C. a huge advantage over hydro-poor jurisdictions when it comes to reducing emissions.

But not all of the province's electricity comes from mighty rivers and not all of it is clean.

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Since 2001, B.C. has been a net importer of electricity, bringing more power into the province than it ships to customers such as California. Much of the imported electricity comes from emissions-heavy coal-fired plants in Alberta. B.C.'s new energy plan calls for the province to be self-sufficient by 2016.

Until then, the province's emissions picture may not be as virtuous as its hydro-heavy reputation would suggest. B.C. Hydro reported 1,223 kilotonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions in 2005. If emissions from electricity imported from Alberta and the U.S. were taken into account, that total would more than double, to 3,259 kilotonnes, the David Suzuki Foundation estimates.

"Our [greenhouse gas]numbers for B.C. exclude the footprint of that imported power," said Guy Dauncey, president of British Columbia Sustainable Energy Association. "Our footprint extends way beyond British Columbia."

B.C. Hydro does not include emissions from imported electricity in its greenhouse-gas reports. That's not unusual: For the most part, greenhouse-gas emissions are reported in the jurisdiction where the energy is produced, not where it's consumed.

But some energy experts are taking a different approach, arguing that emissions from imports should be taken into account as part of a move toward life-cycle accounting for energy choices.

Hadi Dowlatabadi, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, recently co-wrote a paper on the economics of ground-source heat pumps. As part of that study -- geared to finding which parts of Canada might see the greatest bang for their buck from widespread adoption of heat pumps -- Prof. Dowlatabadi looked at how electricity imports affected province's greenhouse-gas intensities (the amount of CO{-2} sent into the atmosphere for every unit of electricity or economic production).

Without imports, B.C.'s GHG intensity is 21 -- tied with Newfoundland and bested only by hydro-blessed Quebec, which had a GHG intensity of nine, the study found.

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Taking imports into account, however, B.C.'s GHG intensity climbs to 80 -- still a far cry from Alberta's rating of 891, the highest in the country.

Greenhouse-gas emissions from imported electricity were a factor in the province's call for energy self-sufficiency, said Hydro spokeswoman Elisha Moreno.

"We're aware that some of the energy that we use is generated from natural gas, coal or nuclear. And there are some emissions that come as a result of those," Ms. Moreno said. "So if we can look at using green energy within B.C., then we mitigate the emissions on that side."

Had the energy plan called for continued reliance on market purchases, B.C. Hydro could have looked at implementing green targets for imported electricity as well as for domestic generation, she added. But with a mandate to generate all its electricity within provincial borders by 2016, the focus is on home-grown generation.

B.C.'s transition from electricity exporter to net importer can be chalked up to several factors, including growing domestic demand and a generation system that's gone more than 20 years without sizable new additions. With its new energy plan, the province aims to return to self-sufficiency through a mix of conservation and new, clean generation.

Simon Fraser University professor and energy expert Mark Jaccard said he's "not confident" about the province's ability to hit ambitious conservation targets.

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"Independent experts are increasingly coming to recognize that energy efficiency is a lot more difficult to achieve than it appears," Prof. Jaccard said in an e-mailed response to questions. "You need strong regulations and price signals. Hindsight shows that the information and subsidy programs we have relied upon throughout North America for the past 30 years have not been as effective as we thought."

B.C. can be an importer and still build a cleaner electricity profile, Prof. Jaccard said. California and other jurisdictions are shopping for emissions-free electricity. B.C. should do the same, and apply its 90-per-cent clean electricity target -- the standard for domestic generation -- to any imports.

Better financial incentives -- including higher electricity rates for residential and industrial users -- may be required to encourage conservation, Prof. Dowlatabadi said. And those higher rates should be introduced sooner rather than later, he argues, something that could require a new approach by regulators that would allow utilities such as B.C. Hydro to use higher prices to force the issue.

"Having higher rates after we have new dams and coal-power plants would have already damaged the environment," Prof. Dowlatabadi said. "Historically, electricity utilities have been selling a commodity. I see a future where they will be promoting the most efficient way to derive services from electricity."

A darker shade of green

British Columbia's bountiful hydro-electric power generates few greenhouse gas emissions, but the province's imports of electricity from Alberta and the U.S. have been on the rise.

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Much of that imported energy comes from relatively dirty power plants, sending B.C.'s share of greenhouse-gas emissions soaring, according to calculations by the Suzuki Foundation.

Emissions from power imported from Alberta and U.S. B. C. Hydro emissions Total
2002 1,087 950 2,037
2003 1,766 917 2,683
2004 1,984 1,685 3,669
2005 2,036 1,223 3,259

SOURCE: B.C. HYDRO, SUZUKI FOUNDATION

Series schedule

Monday: B.C.'s uncharted path to a green future. Plus, one Vancouver family goes on a carbon diet to slim their greenhouse-gas emissions.

Today:B.C. is a province of green power -- or is it? Plus, the limits to alternative energy and conservation.

Tomorrow: The battle to cut B.C.'s greenhouse gases will be fought on the lawns of suburbia. Plus, economics powers a green revolution in Vancouver's taxi industry.

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Thursday: How B.C. businesses could turn their pollution into profit. Plus, the province's dirtiest dozen.

Friday: The path to green: how B.C. can slash greenhouse gases. Plus, Part 2 of the carbon diet.

Radio and TV: Listen to The Bill Good Show on CKNW this morning, and watch CTV at 6 p.m. for more Climate for Change coverage.

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