Terry Sonderhoff insists that run-of-river power projects like the one he hopes to build near Squamish are far from the ecological and energy-policy disasters that critics say they are. The private power developer maintains not only that his Fries Creek project would have a minimal environmental impact but also that such enterprises represent the best way to provide British Columbians with cheap, clean electricity for years to come.
“It’s incredibly efficient,” said Sonderhoff, the president and owner of Second Reality Effects Inc.—a West Vancouver–based company whose Pacific Greengen Power division is behind the project—during a two-hour interview at the Georgia Straight offices. “It’s much more efficient than wind because the density’s much higher. And the amount of power you can get out of a very small amount of water, with a lot of elevation, is incredible.”
The company’s plan to harness the energy of Fries Creek has met fierce opposition from Squamish environmentalists who point out that two provincial parks and a wildlife-management area fringe the project. The independent power producer has proposed removing a 417-metre-long stretch of logging road from Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park—a move the project’s detractors say must not be allowed.
“In my mind, this is kind of like the poster child of IPPs on what not to do and how not to proceed,” said John Buchanan, vice president of the Squamish Environmental Conservation Society.
With his laptop and two binders full of project information in front of him, Sonderhoff—a 42-year-old special-effects coordinator whose film and television credits include Battlestar Galactica, Final Destination, and Scary Movie 4—said he started looking into the possibility of developing hydroelectric-power projects more than a decade ago. After visits to 70 streams, he applied to the province in 2005 for water licences to use four creeks for power generation.
One year later, Second Reality signed a 40-year electricity-purchase agreement with BC Hydro, committing to provide the Crown corporation with 10 megawatts of generating capacity and between 38 and 55 gigawatt hours of energy per year from Fries Creek, beginning on May 1, 2009. In return, the public utility will pay the company $68.50 (in 2006 dollars) per megawatt hour.
If Second Reality can obtain the necessary water licence and land tenure—the applications for which have cost the company $10,000 in fees—the $22-million project will divert a maximum of 2.61 cubic metres of water per second from Fries Creek and two of its tributaries into a 2.5-kilometre-long penstock. After falling 485 metres and spinning two Pelton turbines, the water will be released into a new 1.1-kilometre-long salmon spawning channel before flowing into the Squamish River.
The creation of fish habitat means that wildlife could actually benefit from the project, suggested Iain Cuthbert, the president of Barkley Project Group Ltd., which is assessing the project’s environmental impact for Second Reality and does similar work for other run-of-river proponents.
“It will produce far more fish—salmonids—than lower Fries Creek does,” the biologist said from his Nanaimo office. “We’re quite confident in that. It will probably, therefore, produce a lot of food for eagles.”
Chief Bill Williams, cochair of the Squamish Nation, in whose traditional territory the proposed project lies, isn’t buying it. Williams noted that Second Reality wouldn’t return the diverted water to Fries Creek—distinguishing the project from waterpower developments on Ashlu and Furry creeks, with which the 3,600-member nation is involved.
“The Fries Creek project is not a normal run-of-the-river project,” he said. “What Fries Creek is, in reality, is a river-diversion program.
“At the end of the day, the creek in question is also of cultural and spiritual importance to the Squamish Nation,” added Williams, who said the nation is “totally against the project”.
Although SECS’s Buchanan is worried that the reopening of logging roads across the river from Squamish will lead more people to visit and disturb the west side’s cougars, deer, and herons, it’s the potential impact of the project on wintering bald eagles that angers Thor Froslev, owner of the Brackendale Art Gallery.
Since 1986, Froslev has helped organize an annual count of the eagles, which congregate in the Squamish River valley from November to February to feed on chum salmon. (In 1994, participants counted a world-record 3,769 eagles. This past January, the total observed was only 893.) And when the 755-hectare Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park was established in 1999, it was largely due to his efforts.
Speaking on his cellphone from his truck, Froslev said it would be “totally inappropriate” to remove water from Fries Creek before it flows through Brackendale Eagles—and it would be “bullshit” to change the boundaries of the class A park.
“Any disturbance that you have in the park for the eagles is detrimental to it,” Froslev said. “They need to be left alone and feed. Sometimes they get pretty scarce.”
Sonderhoff said that since the section of logging road in question was only included in the park due to a “mapping error”—a view conveyed to the Straight by Kevin Haberl of the Squamish Forest District—he was told by B.C. Parks that the boundary could be adjusted “internally”.
When asked about this, B.C. environment ministry spokesperson Kate Thompson said: “The company was informed that any boundary changes within the park would require an application for an amendment. They are aware of that policy, and we have not seen an application.”
Changing the boundaries of Brackendale Eagles would not only be cost-effective for Second Reality but better for the environment, Sonderhoff argued. Still, he’s prepared to build an additional 500 metres of new road to bypass the park if the adjustment doesn’t go through.
“We came up with this because we are trying to be as low-impact as possible,” Sonderhoff said. “But it seems every time we try and do” the best thing for the environment, it gets bogged down in politics.
“After this thing with the Pitt River, they’re freaking out,” he added, referring to Environment Minister Barry Penner’s rejection on March 26 of an application to remove land from Pinecone Burke Provincial Park for another proposed run-of-river project’s power line.
Penner did not grant an interview request. The minister is scheduled to take part in a ceremony in Squamish on Saturday (April 19) to celebrate the creation of the 673-hectare Skwelwil’em Squamish Estuary Wildlife Management Area, which was designated in February 2007 and lies just east of the proposed project.
In person, as well as in several phone conversations, Sonderhoff endeavoured to refute many arguments that opponents might use to criticize his plans. Indeed, he’s so confident his project is environmentally sound that he’s considering making a documentary about it.
Responding to Buchanan’s concerns about access, Sonderhoff said that ferrying equipment, materials, and workers across the bridgeless lower Squamish River via barge and helicopter wouldn’t make it any easier for the public to visit the west side, and that most of the roads the company would use are already there. He noted the powerhouse—covering a 24-by-12-metre area—would be built in an existing transmission corridor, and any electricity generated would be carried across the river by a buried 2.2-kilometre, 25-kilovolt power line.
Although that energy might seem expensive to some, rising fossil-fuel prices and climate change would make it a bargain within the contract’s lifetime, Sonderhoff argued.
“In 30 years, it’s probably going to be considered some of the cheapest power you can get,” he said. “The same thing happened with the Shrum dam and Mica and all those big dams when they were built in the ’60s. They were considered overblown, too expensive, and now we think they’re geniuses.”
Although Sonderhoff has already sunk $1 million of his own money into Fries Creek, he anticipates the project will generate that much profit in an average year. The CFI Infrastructure Opportunities Fund, which is managed by CFI Capital Inc., has bought a stake in it. If the project isn’t built, Sonderhoff said, his company will owe a $300,000 performance bond to BC Hydro.
On December 5, B.C.’s Integrated Land Management Bureau granted Second Reality an investigative permit, which allows the company to send in drill rigs as soon as next month to perform geotechnical work at the intake site. Construction in the watershed’s second-growth forest could begin “within minutes” of the granting of the water licence and land tenure and would take 14 months to complete, according to Sonderhoff.
Asked what would happen when the project’s 40-year contract with BC Hydro expires, Sonderhoff said his company would come to new terms with the public utility or be forced to either dismantle the site or let the Crown corporation take over the project. Addressing concerns that private power companies will sell their electricity to the United States once their agreements are up, he stated: “I can categorically say we have absolutely no intention to do that.” The province has no obligation to renew the project’s water licence and land tenure, which expire with the contract, Sonderhoff said.
“One thing you have to remember about these projects—compared to mining, oil, gas, and all the other projects—these are completely reversible,” he said. “If it turned out, for unknown reasons, that this was ruining the world, you could dismantle the whole thing, and the place would be exactly the same as it was before.”
Craig Orr, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, wants the province to establish a central planning process for run-of-river projects—one that doesn’t ignore the cumulative effects of multiple developments. B.C. Citizens for Public Power executive director Melissa Davis asserted that such projects should remain public assets, to control costs and ensure B.C. residents benefit from any profits.
Echoing the New Democrats’ recent call for a moratorium on new private power projects, Steve Lawson, national coordinator of the First Nations Environmental Network, said the province should put a stop to the “privatization of the water resources” until the impacts are fully known.
“We’re not opposed to green hydropower,” Orr said. “But just like we’re not opposed to logging and aquaculture, we’re opposed to bad logging and bad aquaculture and bad green-power projects that have huge footprints and don’t consider the other values that need to be taken into account in planning, including wilderness and social and recreational values.”
Money, power, run of river
> BC Hydro rate for Fries Creek power (2006 dollars): $68.50 per megawatt hour
> BC Hydro rate for residents for electricity: $61.50 per megawatt hour
> BC Hydro payments to the project’s owner in an average year: $3 million
> Developer’s expected annual water-rental fees to the province: $70,000
> Maximum quantity of water to be diverted: 2.61 cubic metres per second
> Mean annual discharge of creek at intake: 2.04 cubic metres per second
> Length of Fries Creek that would receive less water: 4.275 kilometres
Sources: Second Reality Effects Inc., BC Hydro