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Dispelling Some Myths About British Columbia's Energy Picture

Anyone who tells you that we don't need the new power from a project like the Site C dam doesn't understand British Columbia's energy picture.
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There is a pervasive myth out there that most of British Columbia's energy needs are being met via renewable energy sources (primarily hydro). Based on this myth, environmental activists have suggested that it should be relatively easy to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and thus we have no need to improve our oil transportation infrastructure (like our network of oil pipelines).

Activists also use the same myth to suggest that we no longer need to build any large energy projects, like the Site C dam.

The truth is that the majority of British Columbia's electricity supply (almost 94 per cent, according to the province) is supplied via renewable energy sources. The problem is that electrical energy only represents a small percentage of British Columbia's total energy consumption.

While good numbers are hard to find, a reasonable estimate of British Columbia's total energy consumption was reported by the GLOBE Foundation as approximately 317,500 Gigawatt-hours (GWh, equivalent to 1 billion watt-hours) in 2000. BC Hydro reports that it generates between 43,000 GWh and 56,000 GWh a year.

This means that BC Hydro supplies less than 18 per cent of the total energy consumed in British Columbia and that the renewable electricity component represents approximately 17 per cent of our yearly energy consumption.

That leaves over 82 per cent of the energy consumed in British Columbia coming from other sources:

  • About 33 per cent was supplied via fossil fuels (excluding natural gas)
  • About 26 per cent was supplied via natural gas
  • about 20 per cent was supplied via burning of waste biomass in industrial facilities
  • and the remaining was mostly supplied via coal and coke (mostly for use in cement plants).

Let's accept, for the moment, that natural gas represents the cleanest of the fossil fuel sources of energy and go after the dirtier stuff first.

According to the GLOBE Foundation, of the 105,560 GWh of petroleum products used for energy in British Columbia in 2000, approximately 50 per cent was gasoline, 24 per cent was diesel, 20 per cent was aviation fuel and six per cent was heavy oil.

To further simplify the math, let's now ignore aviation fuel and heavy fuel oil and stick only to the gasoline and diesel. If through some feat of magic we were able to convert all the cars and trucks in B.C. to electrical vehicles overnight, and assuming 100 per cent charging efficiency, we would need to generate around 78,000 GWh of additional energy to run all those vehicles. This would represent more than doubling the electricity currently supplied by BC Hydro.

Consider that the Site C dam, once completed, is expected to generate 5,100 GWh of electricity. To replace the energy currently provided by gasoline and diesel fuels only, we would need to find the energy equivalent to almost 15 Site C dams!

Remember we have only been talking liquid fuels here. For a 100 per cent fossil fuel-free B.C., we would also need to replace the natural gas used mostly for industrial purposes and for home and water heating. That would represent another 16 Site C dam equivalents.

Let's return to the real world. With improved transit and smart planning we should be able to reduce our energy needs for transportation; but the vast majority of British Columbia cannot be served by mass transit. There is simply not enough money available to give every driver from Creston to Fort Saint John and from Invermere to Prince Rupert an alternative to driving. That means that for most of British Columbia, we will still need personal vehicles.

Moreover, all the transit in the world will not address the need for panel vans and light trucks. Contractors, suppliers and salespeople cannot rely on the transit system. Try to imagine a plumber attempting to transport a new sink or toilet and all her supplies/tools to a job site on a bus?

Finally, no amount of transit will reduce the need for the transport trucks that bring the groceries to market and supply the boutiques of Vancouver. The last time I looked it was pretty much impossible to move a pallet of milk or apples on SkyTrain.

Given our current technological state we are nowhere near a position where British Columbia can achieve 100 per cdent fossil fuel-free status. Any plan that ignores that fact is simply magical thinking.

Our society is dependent on fossil fuels and that being said, we need to safely transport those fossil fuels. We know that pipelines and double-hulled tankers are safer and less ecologically risky modes of transport than oil-by-rail, oil-by-barge or oil-by-road. As a pragmatic environmentalist, that means it is time to get behind the drive to improve and upgrade our pipeline systems, not to fight them.

In order to achieve a "fossil fuel-free B.C." we would need to somehow replace the almost 60 per cent of our energy needs currently being met with fossil fuels through alternative sources. To even make a small dent in that demand means we are going to need to develop a LOT of new electricity. Unfortunately, we have already exploited almost all of the easily accessible hydro.

If your goal is to fight climate change and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels then it is time to aggressively develop our hydroelectric and geothermal energy capacity wherever we can. Finally, anyone who tells you that we don't need the new power from a project like the Site C dam doesn't understand British Columbia's energy picture.

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