Backstage at a Run-of-River Green-Energy Project

TOBA INLET, BRITISH COLUMBIA -- When it comes to renewable-energy generation, location is everything. The southwest is a shoe-in for solar. Texas offers wicked wind. And this corner of the continent boasts steep, roaring glacier-fed rivers, and a growing group of companies harnessing them to generate carbon-free electricity.

The technology is called run-of-river. In essence, these projects capture the kinetic energy of falling water without the massive negative impacts associated with dam construction, and they're causing quite a stir out here on Canada's West Coast, where geography and hydrology combine to create tremendous green-power potential. Though there are presently 35 run-of-river projects operating in the province, regional electrical utility B.C. Hydro has identified promising locations for as many as 900 more.

All of this potential is catching the attention of start-up companies, large investors such as General Electric--which is partnering with a producer through one of its Canadian subsidies--and environmentalists. Some enviros say development of the province's "green energy belt"--a remote and rugged stretch of coast cut with fjords and glaciers--will ultimately help displace fossil fuels from North America's electrical grid.

But others have a different view.

"Claims that all [run of river] projects are 'clean and green' are questionable at best," says Vicky Husband, a senior advisor with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, based just outside of Vancouver, B.C.. Husband and others oppose the number and size of the schemes, which typically involve redirecting rivers and building powerhouses and new transmission lines.

A few months ago, Husband organized a Robert F. Kennedy Jr. appearance in Whistler, B.C. The celebrity activist told the audience that run-of-river projects involve "tremendous amounts of logging and the disruption of ecosystems."

Run-of-river supporters dispute these assertions. They note that the schemes are subject to multiple environmental approvals, and that transmission lines, pipes, powerhouses, and the like represent a reasonable trade-off to help displace carbon from the grid--especially since the installations are usually located in previously logged areas and use existing forestry roads for access.

"Some people are not seeing the big picture, which is climate change, or depleting resources," says Barry Penner, British Columbia's environment minister. "It's even about improving the economy. We need sustainable, responsible development of renewable energy."

Further challenging matters is the fact that many run-of-river project sites are located in rugged, remote, and often roadless areas. In other words, it's difficult to see them first-hand.

But not impossible.

Last week, Plutonic Power--one of Western Canada's largest green-power developers--invited me and a few other journalists to tour a 123-megawatt run-of-river project that the company is building at the top end of the Toba Valley, about 110 miles due northwest of Vancouver.

When complete in the middle of next year, this will be the largest green-power project of its kind in the province.

To give you a feel for the scale and remoteness of the landscape, check out this clip looking out from the helicopter on the trip out to the work site. Note that the company paid for my flights, and also purchased carbon offsets for the petroleum burned in the course of the trip.

The last frame shows a small corner of the 81-square-mile ice field that covers the plateau here--one of several enormous such glaciers in the vicinity. Glacial meltwater is the "fuel" of the East Toba project and many of the 19 or so others that the company would like to pursue in the area.

Here's Plutonic Power CEO Donald McInnes explaining how the East Toba project will work, and why he feels the region is well suited to run-of-river power development. McInnes is standing inside a eight-foot-diameter section of pipe, or "penstock" that will ultimately carry water to the project's turbines. To clarify, the "high elevation plateau" he mentions in the 90-second clip is actually a glacier roughly the size of Baltimore.

At this elevation, this particular river contains no fish; ideally, run-of-river projects are located upstream from natural fish barriers such as waterfalls.

The company first constructs a weir--or low-height retention dam. Here is the East Toba intake structure under construction. (Click any of these images to open them at a larger size.) Much of the area seen to the lower right will be flooded to create a headpond.

From there, an intake directs a portion of the river's flow into a buried pipe called a penstock, which sends it downhill and through a pair of turbines before returning it to the river. Here's a look at the penstock that will serve the East Toba turbines. Crews have already buried the pipe on the right-hand side of the image.

The penstock directs the river water into a powerhouse, which is about the size of a pharmacy or large convenience store. In the image below, you can see the two turbines inside the unfinished structure, they are surrounded by circular red pipe which directs the river water into the turbine blades via smaller pipes called nozzles. From there the water flows back into the river.

We couldn't land the helicopter or get much closer to the powerhouse because technicians were performing delicate mechanical tasks on the structure and the kicked-up dust from the chopper could have compromised their work. But together, at peak flow, these two turbines will generate about 123 megawatts of electricity. When coupled with other turbines at the nearby Montrose powerhouse--which is also currently under construction--at peak flow these sites will output enough energy to power 75,000 homes.

For comparison, a typical medium-size coal plant generates about 500 megawatts.

From the powerhouse, electricity will head out to the grid along a new 96-mile 230 kV transmission line. Here's a portion of the corridor as seen from the helicopter; poles and wire have yet to be installed here. The right-of-way for the lines varies between 131 and 262 feet wide.

It is useful to compare this corridor with historical logging that the area has seen. As we flew out and back to the site, we passed over numerous large green scars on the landscape, the legacy of mile after mile of clear-cut logging. It is clear that despite its remoteness, the valleys in the province's Green Energy Belt are not pristine wilderness as some run-of-river opponents suggest, but have in fact hosted decades of industrial activity.

Here is an aerial of the project camp for the crews building the Plutonic Power East Toba and Montrose renewable power projects. The area covers roughly 10 acres, and is built on the site of a former logging town, which its previous forestry-industry occupants abandoned in ruins in the 1980s. They walked away from the site leaving tonnes of debris and rusting, leaking barrels of petroleum.

Plutonic cleaned up the site and removed the toxics before setting up the camp. The complex in the middle is a dormitory where about 300 workers live full-time. Services for workers include a well-stocked fitness facility, cafeteria, and lounge with videogames, etc. All sewage is treated on site, organic waste is incinerated nearby almost daily, all recyclable materials are source-separated, and shipped out with non-recyclable trash. The company has opened up the hillside in the background to mine materials for concrete production.

Everything at the camp was brought in on barges to the head of Toba Inlet [MAP], and then driven up an access road that was built decades ago by the logging industry. You can see it along the top of this photograph.

At this lower point in its course, the Toba is prime salmon habitat.

Along its route up the valley, the access road crosses many smaller tributaries of the Toba that historically had been used by spawning salmon. The company says the culverts carrying these streams under the road had become choked and blocked with logging debris. Though I didn't get to see one of them up-close, Plutonic says it has replaced 100 of these damaged and blocked culverts, opening up access to tributaries and gravel spawning grounds that have been unavailable to the fish for decades.

In essence, this project's developer has increased viable habitat available to salmon.

Every form of energy development has its impacts. Like wind farms and their associated risks to bats and other wildlife, run-of-river energy is a complicated issue. The debate here is marked by much emotion and rhetoric surrounding not only environmental concerns, but also the privatization of power and commercial exploitation of rivers--both hot-button issues in British Columbia.

Clearly, these installations need to be done right--with thorough advance consideration of all potential impacts on fish, wildlife, and river ecosystems. Judging from what I saw on this trip, and from the workers I spoke with at the camp, that's exactly what Plutonic appears to be doing.

The company is also partnering with the area's aboriginal residents, providing their members with jobs and job training.

After viewing this project--and knowing that with the exception of the transmission line, the blasted and cleared areas will be replanted and remediated once the project is complete--the impacts appeared reasonable and moderate, especially when compared with the impacts associated with large hydroelectric projects and fossil-fuel-based power generation.

Plutonic Power is currently proposing a set of 17 run-of-river installations in the nearby Bute Inlet region, just north of Toba Valley. If approved by a federal environmental assessment currently underway, and subject to other conditions, those installations could generate as much as 1,027 megawatts of renewable energy--enough to power roughly 300,000 homes.

The company also expects the Bute projects will create as many as 900-1,200 full-time green-collar jobs over an eight-year period, in a regionally depressed economy.