By Melissa Davis
The B.C. Energy Plan has attracted considerable public and media attention in recent months. And no wonder. The plan affects many core values held by British Columbians: the environment, climate change, public services, and renewable energy.
With the provincial election looming, voters are challenged with the task of deciphering the truth amid communication strategies intended to generate confusion and sway votes.
An excellent illustration comes from our very own premier. While campaigning for the provincial leadership back in 2001, Gordon Campbell promised: “A BC Liberal government will not sell or privatize BC Hydro’s dams, transmission lines, water resources or other core assets” (Vancouver Sun, March 1, 2001, page A17].
To be fair, the Liberal government has not, technically speaking, privatized B.C. Hydro—much in the same way that leasing B.C. Rail for 999 years does not constitute privatization.
But shortly after assuming office in 2002, the B.C. government outsourced one-third of B.C. Hydro’s operations to Accenture, a Bermuda-based firm with ties to Enron. Next, they established the B.C. Transmission Corporation, carving out transmission operations from B.C. Hydro so private power producers could transmit electricity throughout the North American grid. They also introduced an energy policy prohibiting our publicly owned Crown utility from developing new sources of electricity (excluding Site C, subject to the outcome of a five-year review), allocating this function exclusively to the private sector.
The B.C. Liberals argue that private power producers assume the financial risks associated with their projects. In reality, there’s not much risk involved in 20- to 40-year guaranteed electricity purchase agreements, regardless of domestic requirements, at grossly inflated rates ($80 to $125 per megawatt-hour) that far exceed market prices or B.C. Hydro’s power generation costs ($24 per megawatt-hour).
In fact, residential hydro rate increases are subsidizing private power developments—with a three percent hike implemented April 1, followed by a two-tiered rate structure applied October 1. The provincial budget proposes an additional 21 percent increase over the next three years.
Without question, the most insidious communications strategy has been the provincial government’s positioning of private power as synonymous with green energy, thereby portraying opponents of private power as anti-green.
To be clear, public power supporters are proudly “green”. We support environmental protection, conservation, and renewable energy. But we consider privately generated power to be antithetical to “green” principles.
While run-of-river power does not generate GHGs, project construction causes significant and irreparable environmental damage to forests, wildlife, and many aquatic species.
What’s more, run-of-river generates power primarily during the spring run-off, when B.C.’s dams and reservoirs are full; since the energy can’t be stored, it won’t help B.C. achieve “energy self-sufficiency” as the government claims. Rather, this power is intended for export to the U.S.
Plutonic Power’s CEO, Donald McInnes, has referred to B.C. as the “Saudi Arabia of green energy” with respect to electricity export opportunities. The question arises: does the provincial government’s vision of leadership on climate change involve the destruction of B.C.’s pristine wilderness for the purpose of powering air conditioners in California?
The government has a lot riding on its energy policy—more than $30 billion in contracts with private power companies whose contributions to the B.C. Liberal Party since 2001 total more than $800,000. But to realize their plans, they need an election win.
That’s why the party isn’t taking any chances. “AstroTurf” groups have been established in an effort to silence and discredit opposition—a PR strategy of fabricating a public interest group to publicly promote government and corporate objectives.
The most perplexing voice to emerge in this debate has been the small number of environmental activists who have aligned themselves with the government’s agenda to privatize B.C.’s electricity sector. While we share certain values, we do not view climate change as a justification for privatizing B.C.’s electricity sector. From our perspective, project-specific and cumulative environmental impacts associated with widespread, unregulated private power developments will hinder—not help—our efforts to address climate change.
Plain and simple, private companies are driven by profit—in this case, measured by energy consumption, not conservation. By contrast, Crown corporations measure their profitability through economic, social, and political objectives, including fair rate structures, conservation objectives, and green energy generation. Renewable energy solutions require public ownership and oversight, regional planning, meaningful engagement with First Nations, and adherence to strict environmental standards.
Melissa Davis is the executive director of B.C. Citizens for Public Power.