A proposed 164-turbine onshore wind farm poised to generate up to one gigawatt of power has B.C. experts looking east for inspiration to tackle a potential shortage of green energy that will be needed to power the province’s grid.

But given the way the wind blows when it comes to BC Hydro’s grip on the market, a similar project seems unrealistic on the west coast, they say.

The plan to build the plant on Newfoundland’s Port au Port Peninsula was put forth in June by World Energy GH2, a consortium of four Canadian companies, which boasts it would be Canada’s first commercial green hydrogen and ammonia facility powered by wind energy. The project is in the midst of the environmental assessment stage.

It’s the type of clean energy project B.C. needs as the province prepares for a massive influx of electricity demand — it is targeting a 100 per cent rate of new vehicle registrations being zero-emission by 2035 — according to Simon Fraser university political scientist Andy Hira.

“We’re 95-plus per cent already renewable in terms of hydro,” said Hira, the lead researcher of SFU’s Clean Energy Research Group. The problem is “there’s only one game in town and that’s BC Hydro.”

“They have a monopoly.”

Site C’s original $8 billion cost has ballooned to $14 billion. The project is slated for completion by 2025.

The crown corporation’s Site C hydroelectric dam, scheduled to be completed in 2025, has faced no shortage of scrutiny. Despite expectations the dam will generate about 5,100 gigawatt hours of energy each year, Hira said his team’s calculations show the project will only create enough additional power to sustain B.C. for a decade, “considering how fast demand is growing and how much additional supply we will need.”

“Site C has been a huge debacle,” he told BC Today. “It was poorly sited, there was a lack of transparency, the consultants they used didn’t properly look at the foundations. So there are huge cost overruns. The end result of that cost overrun is that BC Hydro, already a very secretive and kind of closed organization, basically shut down its incipient program to fund new sources of renewable energy.”

In 2017, BC Hydro suspended its Standing Offer Program, launched in 2008 to provide independent power producers an opportunity to develop small-scale renewable energy projects. At the time of its suspension, the Crown corp cited “a surplus supply of electricity which is expected to continue into the 2030s,” meaning there was “no need for new electricity supplies for the foreseeable future.”

“Suspending the SOP will reduce BC Hydro’s energy costs and take pressure off rates for all British Columbians,” the province said.

But that kiboshed any plans “for diversifying [B.C.’s] energy and exploiting all these incredible potential renewable energy sources, both wind, geothermal and to some extent solar,” per Hira.

It also prompted an exodus of renewable energy developers from B.C., said Jae Mather, chief executive of the U.K.-based Carbon Free Group and an advisory board member of SFU’s Clean Energy Research Group.

“Because BC Hydro has everything in its control — its transmission, its distribution, its production and its sale, including export to the U.S. and export to Alberta — there is no vehicle left to build any of these projects,” Mather told BC Today. “Plenty of [existing projects] are up and running. Plenty are doing really well, but you’re not going to have any new ones until the regulatory framework changes.”

Port au Port is proof of concept for B.C. wind

Mather said the proposed Newfoundland project demonstrates that more reliance on wind power could be a viable, cost-effective alternative in the future.

“Right now we can build wind in B.C. for way cheaper than any hydro project and we could build it faster and we could build it with private finance, and we could build it with First Nations partners, all of it, without a problem,” he said.

Mather — who is also the former executive director of the Clean Energy Association of B.C., which represents independent companies producing about 15 per cent of electricity in the province — recalled proposing a wind and solar project to the government that could deliver three times the electricity of Site C at the project’s original $8 billion cost (which has since ballooned to $14 billion).

But he said the idea fell on deaf ears.

“It’s bloody easy to do this here, if only the regulatory frameworks and the government and BC Hydro got out of the way,” Mather said. “It’s a very weird situation, very different from Newfoundland … None of this has to do with rationale or finance or logic. It’s to do with politics and incumbent industries.”

The NDP government says concerns about B.C. being unable to meet rising power demands are overblown — and that wind and solar could eventually be added to energy mix.

A spokesperson for Energy Minister Bruce Ralston told BC Today that “BC Hydro has abundant capacity to meet the new energy demand created by electric vehicles.”

“BC Hydro’s system is well-positioned to integrate additional renewables like wind and solar when the energy is required,” Sean Leslie said in an email.

“The hydroelectric system is flexible — the reservoirs act as ‘batteries.’ The reservoirs store water and allow BC Hydro to ramp up and ramp down production efficiently. This means that B.C. is an ideal place to add power sources like solar and wind to the provincial system because we have back up from the hydroelectric facilities for when there is limited or no sun exposure or wind.”

Untapped potential

Mather called on the province to take a “market-based decision-making” approach to shaping its energy production mix that incorporates environmental benefit factors.

He said it’s undeniable that B.C. has “harnessed none of our wind energy.”

“Less than 0.001 per cent. We have a vast untapped potential,” he said. “In fact, the vision for British Columbia should be that we become a renewable energy powerhouse for western North America. We should be building tens of gigawatts of renewable generation here and exporting it into Alberta and exporting it down into the United States. But there is no vision in the government of British Columbia or BC Hydro to do that.”

Hira added that BC Hydro’s “lack of transparency and accountability” has shielded it from questions over how the province will meet the demands of an increasingly electrified future.

“They’re really not willing to discuss provincial strategy in any kind of open forum. Because of this hydro legacy, everyone just has a ‘no worries’ kind of attitude about this, not realizing that Site C is just a band-aid, and it doesn’t solve the problem,” he said.

“The province should be investing now, but … because of all the capital expenditures and overspending, the oversights and Site C, they’re pennywise and pound-foolish. So the rubber is going to hit the road basically, in seven to 10 years, and then we’re going to be stuck with a lack of energy.”