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The last big dam?

Last week, the BC government announced plans to build what might be the last big dam in BC, and it's on the Yukon's doorstep. Euphemistically named the "Site C Clean Energy Project," the dam near Fort St. John would be the third on the Peace River.

Last week, the BC government announced plans to build what might be the last big dam in BC, and it’s on the Yukon’s doorstep.

Euphemistically named the “Site C Clean Energy Project,” the dam near Fort St. John would be the third on the Peace River. Besides providing Yukoners driving the Alaska Highway with a place to swim if the Fort St. John Super 8 is full, it would generate enough power for about 410,000 homes, according to BC Hydro.

The dam would be about 60 metres above the river bed and its reservoir over 80 kilometres long. Its 900-megawatt capacity would be about 100 times more powerful than the Mayo B expansion currently underway in the Yukon.

In parallel, BC Premier Gordon Campbell’s proposed Clean Energy Act will prohibit any more “large-scale hydroelectric storage dam projects on all river systems.” This would include the Liard River, which BC Hydro at one point was thinking of putting three dams across in a giant project that would have generated 4,318 megawatts (roughly 40 times the Yukon’s entire capacity) and flooded 160 kilometres of the Alaska Highway and five communities.

Big dams are controversial, as both Yukoners and the inhabitants of Fort St. John know. BC Hydro is attempting to defuse this by stressing that the dam would generate one-third as much power as the titanic WAC Bennett dam, but only need a reservoir five per cent the size. The utility also notes the large reservoir makes the dam an enabler of wind and solar energy. These energy sources are intermittent, and a grid operator needs back-up power like Site C for calm and dark periods.

From the looks of websites run by opponents in Fort St. John, replete with photos of dust-storms and houses teetering on eroded banks near existing large dams, not everyone is buying the story.

But the iPods and hot-tubs of Vancouver need the power. So do potentially lucrative export markets in California. The proponents hope that the turbines will be spinning by 2020. They expect BC’s power needs to be 20 to 40 per cent higher within 20 years, with around a million extra BC residents and perhaps millions of electric cars in the province.

Alberta may even need the power, because federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice has recently been telling power generators that Ottawa is working on rules that will require them to phase out their coal-fired plants, likely over the next 10 to 15 years. More than half of Alberta’s generating capacity is fuelled by coal.

There is a lively debate over the economics of big dams versus smaller wind farms, geothermal, solar panels and run-of-river hydro projects. On the one hand, some claim that the smaller facilities are both more cost-effective and that it is better to depend on 100 small sources of power rather than one big one. On the other hand, as Ontario’s new green power tariffs suggest, alternative power sources are often more expensive (though not always so). Plus, it would take 180 five-megawatt alternative projects to match the capacity of Fort St. John’s soon-to-be newest (only?) tourist attraction.

Also, even these small projects generate their own storms of controversy. Landscape enthusiasts loathe wind farms and anti-corporate activists worry about General Electric owning water rights when it builds micro-hydro sites. Someone somewhere is probably working on an anti-solar power campaign right now.

The BC government probably decided that its least bad option was to proceed with the Site C Clean Energy Project.

The only other option for the BC government was to tell British Columbians they would have to use less electricity, and that would be even less popular than selling the Canucks to Hamilton and plopping a big nuclear reactor into BC Place.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the

Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.