Burrard Thermal: A victim of private power?
As the United Nations climate talks proceed in Copenhagen, the debate around green energy is taking on a life of its own in B.C. A natural-gas-fired power plant in Port Moody has taken centre stage in a complex fight that will determine B.C.’s energy future.
The fate of the Burrard Generating Station (sometimes called Burrard Thermal), a power plant with the capacity to generate almost 10 percent of the province’s energy needs, has forced the topic of privatization into the debate about provincial energy strategy.
The province wants the plant used for emergencies only and has refused to count its potential power production for B.C. Hydro’s planning purposes. Environmental groups claim that the plant is being demonized, creating a smoke screen to enable the selloff of B.C. rivers for controversial private-sector run-of-river power projects.
Yet other organizations are in favour of shutting the plant completely. These groups frame the debate as one between clean energy and dirty energy, and they support the development of private power.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the Burrard Thermal plant produces a tremendous amount of all the things we don’t want, and we have so many opportunities to provide the power under a green format and not be using something we know is going to be a problem,” Bruce Sanderson, the spokesperson for B.C. Citizens for Green Energy, told the Georgia Straight. He accuses those in favour of keeping Burrard Thermal operational of being well-funded “self-interest” groups. (Likewise, Sanderson’s group has been described as being funded by independent power producers.)
Sanderson’s views on Burrard Thermal are echoed by some activists, including Tzeporah Berman, founder of PowerUp Canada.
“There’s no question that it needs to be shut down,” Berman told the Straight by phone. “We shouldn’t be using aging, spewing plants like Burrard. We should be ensuring that we are creating the capacity to have more clean energy of our own.”
Berman, who was recently named to sit on the B.C. government’s Green Energy Advisory Task Force, said that producing clean power should be everyone’s priority, be it B.C. Hydro or private power companies.
But portraying Burrard Thermal as a “spewing plant” flies in the face of the province’s own reporting on emissions. The plant didn’t make the list of significant single-point producers of greenhouse-gas emissions in the province’s emissions inventory report for 2005, issued in July. Topping that list are two cement plants in Delta and Richmond and an oil refinery in Burnaby.
Environmentalists and residents of Port Moody who want the plant to continue to operate as it has over the past five years say Burrard Thermal is the only thing standing in the way of B.C. Hydro buying even more power from private companies.
Critics like Gwen Barlee, the policy director of the Wilderness Committee, say the government is using people’s fears to justify the slow-motion privatization of a profitable Crown corporation.
“The government is using the excuse of climate change, which is the most serious issue to face the earth, as an excuse to privatize B.C. Hydro,” Barlee said.
A heavily polluting power plant perched on the shore of the Port Moody Arm of Burrard Inlet isn’t something anyone in the Lower Mainland wants to see, including the people who want to see the plant continue operating.
“The B.C. government is trying to portray Burrard Thermal as if you have a dirty, gas-powered plant that is up and running, 24/7, 365 days a year,” Barlee said. “And, initially, before we started scratching below the surface, that’s what we thought also.”
For the past five years, the plant has only kicked in when electricity demand peaks in the cold winter months, acting as a standby electricity generator for the Lower Mainland. Its power is available on demand, and it has been used when ice storms and forest fires threaten transmission lines, as well as when the demand for electricity is highest.
In 2008, the plant generated only 300 GWh (gigawatt-hours) of electricity, a fraction of one percent of the almost 53,000 GWh that Hydro generated that year. It has been regularly maintained and fitted with filters that have greatly reduced the chemicals contained in its emissions (including a 90-percent decrease in smog-forming pollutants).
“The plant rarely ran at full capacity,” said Elaine Golds, a long-time resident of Port Moody. “It’s kind of like the 20-year-old car that’s only been used to drive to church on Sundays,” she said.
The plant was built in 1963, after which time dams along the Columbia River were completed, reducing the need to generate electricity in the Lower Mainland.
“Burrard Thermal has been a part of our landscape for so many years that it’s part of the community,” Port Moody city councillor Karen Rockwell told the Straight.
From a lookout point near Golds’s home in the hills of Port Moody, it was tough to see the plant across the inlet because of the fog and clouds. Some of her neighbours walked by, clad in raincoats and boots, and commented that since the plant is only used in the winter, they only hear some noise once in a while but don’t really even notice that it’s there.
“Of course, there are some individuals [with misgivings], but the general community does not have concerns with operations at Burrard Thermal,” Port Moody mayor Joe Trasolini told the Straight before a council meeting.
According to Golds, the government is exaggerating the plant’s contribution to air pollution. She was a member of the City of Port Moody’s Burrard Thermal Liaison Committee, a group made up of citizens of Port Moody and representatives of B.C. Hydro and the municipality whose mandate was to determine the community’s vision for the plant.
The committee passed a resolution in 2007 that Burrard Thermal should continue to be maintained and relied on for emergency power beyond 2014.
The province’s B.C. Energy Plan in 2007 called for Burrard Thermal to be phased out by 2014 and also directed B.C. Hydro to budget for energy “insurance” by producing more electricity than the province generally uses each year.
The energy plan, which looks exclusively at electricity generation, gives direction to B.C. Hydro, which then formulates a long-term acquisition plan (LTAP). Once the LTAP is prepared, it is presented to the B.C. Utilities Commission, which oversees B.C. Hydro on behalf of ratepayers, for approval.
Over the summer, the B.C. Utilities Commission rejected parts of Hydro’s latest LTAP and specifically recommended that Burrard Thermal continue to be used for planning purposes to account for 5,000 GWh of power every year to meet the energy-insurance requirements.
“We are looking to enhance our environment, and I think it’s fair to say that if Burrard was to run at the magnitude that the [B.C. Utilities] commission said that it could, it would be the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the province,” Blair Lekstrom, minister of energy, mines, and petroleum resources, told the Straight over the phone.
The B.C. government overruled the BCUC in an October 28 announcement, in which they removed the planning capacity from Burrard and reaffirmed that B.C. Hydro must acquire an additional 6,000 GWh of power from independent power producers.
Lekstrom said that his government had made it clear from 2001 that Burrard Thermal would not be part of B.C.’s electricity generation, and he called his government’s choice to intervene in the independent regulator’s ruling “a clarifying position”.
B.C. Hydro spokesperson Susan Danard said the province’s announcement changes the way planning will be done for Burrard Thermal, but she isn’t sure that it will result in a huge change in the day-to-day operations of the plant.
“It hasn’t, historically—in the last couple years, at least—it has not accounted for a large part of our generation, and it typically was used as a backup,” she told the Straight by phone. “So for us it’s not a big change in direction.”
There are 77 employees at the plant, 15 of whom are unionized members of COPE Local 378. “We haven’t heard anything; we don’t suspect anyone will lose their jobs, because it will just be business as usual,” COPE representative Lori Winstanley told the Straight during a break from November’s B.C. Federation of Labour convention in Vancouver.
According to Danard, operating and maintenance costs at Burrard Thermal were $20 million in fiscal 2009 but it’s too early to say what the financial impact of the government’s announcement will be. The plant pays $1.5 million annually in taxes to the City of Port Moody.
“It’s not going to change the operations at Burrard hardly at all,” said Marvin Shaffer, an energy economist and professor at SFU’s school of public policy. “It will force B.C. Hydro to be in the market for much more power than it would otherwise be out buying.”
Port Moody’s mayor agrees with Shaffer’s assessment, and he said he expects the plant to continue operating as it has during the past five years. “Frankly, the announcement was just a way for the government to remove any possibility of Burrard Thermal being used as an excuse to not go to the run of the river,” Trasolini said.
“As long as it [Burrard] was to be included in the planning for B.C. Hydro, the ability to go secure clean, renewable electricity wasn’t there,” Energy Minister Lekstrom said.
“I think the government has been very clear from the very beginning that they want to create a private industry,” Winstanley said. “Their philosophy is that if it makes money, it doesn’t belong in government, that if we don’t turn it over, we need to at least create a private industry.”
B.C. Hydro will be paying about $100 per megawatt-hour for power that will be backing up the system, Shaffer said, which will usually be surplus and that B.C. Hydro will sell on the open market, where prices are below $70 per MWh over the long term.
“This is a policy they [the private power producers] could have written, all of it, including Burrard,” Shaffer said. “They don’t want anything reducing the amount of energy that B.C. Hydro is forced to buy from their industry. Period.”
Dec 10, 2009 at 5:14am
Most of these green groups, for years, favored the building of run-of-the-river, and would NEVER have supported a plan that called for Hydro to use Burrard thermal as a main source of power. It burns natural gas something fierce, people. Now the same groups denounce run-of-the-river and are all in favor of fossil fuel generation. Why? I think it's because run-of-the-river isn't being builty by Hydro's unions. Period.
Sleep comes like a drug in God's country
Don't be fooled
Dec 10, 2009 at 6:41am
People who have studied the issue know that Burrard Thermal serves as critical emergency back-up power for the Lower Mainland. For the last 5 years it has run at about 5% of capacity - as it should. No one is saying that Burrard Thermal should be ramped up to run year round.
I have cut and pasted a comment I wrote earlier regarding the intricacies of Burrard Thermal.
"Many people mistakenly believe that the decision by the BC Utilities Commission was to ramp up Burrard Thermal to 5,000 Gwh of electricity output yearly - that is NOT the case. The 5,000 GWh of energy attributed to BT by the BCUC was for "planning purposes" only.
This is a very important distinction.
Under the BC Energy Plan (which was designed to stimulate the private power industry) BC Hydro was directed to operate as if every year in BC amounted to a critical low water year. Then around 2016 BC Hydro has to also provide for 3,000 GWh of "insurance energy" - in excess to BC's needs. (Again, both of these requirements were designed to artificially stimulate demand for electricity to be provided by the private power sector).
Both the surplus energy requirement (known as insurance) and the critical low water year amount to over 5,000 GWh of electricity annually. Electricity that is in excess to BC's needs.
Rather than buy that unneeded electricity from IPPs at VERY high prices, the BCUC directed BC Hydro to attribute the artificial requirement for excess electricity to Burrard Thermal for "planning purposes" only. This neatly met the artificial BC Energy Plan requirement, circumvented the need to buy expensive IPP power and also did NOT ramp up the use of Burrard Thermal.
It is very dense and pretty confusing.
Essentially, the BCUC had a choice: allow BC Hydro to buy high priced electricity that was superfluous to BC's electricity needs and resell the energy at a loss south of the border or allot the 5,000 GWh to Burrard Thermal for "planning purposes" only.
The BC Utilities Commission did the right thing, and the government astoundingly ignored their own energy watch-dog and chose to throw away billions and billions of dollars to the IPP industry (although you and I are and other ratepayers are on the hook for most of it).
I would say the government's decision to over-rule the BCUC almost borders on corruption."
The BC Government is desperately hoping that most people won't understand this complicated issue, and then they can continue with their privatization scheme and the sale of hundreds of BC Rivers.
Dec 10, 2009 at 9:30am
"B.C. Hydro will be paying about $100 per megawatt-hour for power that will be backing up the system, Shaffer said, which will usually be surplus and that B.C. Hydro will sell on the open market, where prices are below $70 per MWh over the long term."
Is this $30 subsidy needed so that Tzeporah Berman and Chris Hatch and Mark Jaccard and Kevin Washbrook and Andrew Weaver can say that B.C. is on the leading edge of fighting climate change?
I wonder how long it will be before Jaccard issues another denunciation of Shaffer for criticizing artificially lucrative private power? I wonder if he'll write it all by himself, including all the nasty hooks and barbs, or get some professional help from the friendly and creative folks at the Public Affairs Bureau?
follow the money
Dec 10, 2009 at 9:49am
The government's position on Burrard has nothing to do with the environment. The government exempted all the biggest carbon emitters (such as the cement plants) from the carbon tax, and increased subsidies to the natural gas industry. So why is it so bad to use natural gas in an emergency to provide power to BC? The only explanation is that it reduces the amount of IPP power that BC Hydro must acquire. Follow the money.
Dec 10, 2009 at 10:40am
Instituting mandatory employment standards where any government worker who can work a 3 day work week and/or telecommute will be allowed to, then using "strong persuasion" to encourage the private sector to do the same, would eliminate the need for transit and highway builds in Greater Vancouver and Victoria and reduce GHG's far more than Burrard Thermal running full tilt 24/7.
Funding CNG compressors at independent gas stations. promoting CNG conversions and selling motorists CNG at the same price they pay for home heating gas (30 cents a liter eq) as its done in Utah, would reduce air pollution and GHG's again far more than Burrard Thermal running full tilt 24/7.
Message for Barlee - BCHydro is already privatized - just look at the BCHydro annual report, add in the Pirate purchases listed in that report, then add in Canwest/Gordo's latest 5000 gigwatt hour announcement and by 2013 or so 80% of BCHydro costs will be IPP purchases.
In 2004, AECL finished a three year build of 2 Candu 6 units in Quinshan China for $3B 6 months ahead of schedule and on budget. These units if located at Burrard thermal would generate more 24/7 very valuable clean and green zero polluting power than the entire $55 billion in long term contracts BCHydro has signed with IPP's for their intermittent sometime in the spring worthless power. More modern mass produced reactors would cost a third of that. Gordo's $55B in power will be worthless in a little as ten years – 30 years left on the contracts - with ultracheap new nuclear fusion and nuclear waste burning Gen IV reactors coming on line.
Another message for environmentalist's like Barlee - get educated. BC needs to triple its electricity production if wants to eliminate its GHG's from heating and transportation sectors. There is only one way to do this - nuclear. Read world famous environmentalist Steward "Whole Earth Catalog" Brand's new book Whole Earth Discipline or James "Gaia" Lovelock' s The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning.
I suspect given recent polling on Uranium mining that most British Columbians would accept nuclear power.
Current spot price of electricity is between 3.7 and 5 cents a kwh for peak less than half that for off peak (30% of purchases) - Bloomberg.com. Rates are half that in the springtime when Pirate Power peaks and the Western Power grid is saturated with spring runoff Hydro. The bulk of Canwest/Gordo's Pirate purchases are at or will be shortly 12 cents a kwh and must be sold on the spot market at huge losses.
BC Hydro, now effectively privatized with rates about to triple, by 2013 will be the highest cost power producer in North America and with the exodus of all BC business's using electricity bankrupt.
Dec 10, 2009 at 12:05pm
A few other issues surrounding this sham.
The forests lost due to the construction of the ROR's could soak up the CO2 produced by Burrard Thermal.
The government doesn't care about natural gas being burned to produce power since it is exporting natural gas to the US and China. Some of this is coal-bed methane which is difficult and energy to obtain. And you'll be able to watch the tankers drift on down the coast.
This whole process is just a ruse to support friends and contributors to the BC Liberals.
Dec 10, 2009 at 1:32pm
I would love to see Burrard Thermal shut down and replaced with a cleaner source of electricity but that is not what the government is doing. The plant will stay open and continue to operate just like normal.
All that has changed is the BC Hydro planners will have to pretend like it doesn’t exist and therefore buy more power from private power producers to meet the goals in the government's Energy Plan.
The BC Energy Plan requires Hydro to plan like every year will be the worst water year on record and under that constraint, not only meet BC's electricity needs but also purchase an extra 3,000 GW/h of “insurance power.” The end result is that Hydro will end up buying way more electricity than it needs and most likely have to export the extra to the States at a loss.
But even with all that extra electricity we will still need to keep running Burrard Thermal because "run of the river" does not solve the two problems Burrard address. Which are supplying power during winter cold snaps, when our electricity demand is the highest. These winter months are also the time of year when run of river projects produce the lest power.
The other problem Burrard addresses is disruptions in the transmission system because of natural disasters. Hydro's big dams on the Columbia and Peace rivers are a long way from the Lower Mainland where electricity use is the highest. In the event of an ice storm or a forest fire causing damage to the lines that run to the Lower Mainland, Burrard kicks in and keeps the lights on in Vancouver. Run of the river projects are often in equally remote locations, like Bute Inlet, and face the same kind of challenges Hydro’s dams do.
The BC government’s Energy Plan and policy on Burrard Thermal have nothing to do with fighting climate change and everything to do with helping private power producers make big profits at the expense of BC ratepayers and taxpayers.
Dec 10, 2009 at 2:09pm
I think it's because run-of-the-river isn't being builty by Hydro's unions. Period.
Sleep comes like a drug in God's country
Is that what all this is about, pandering to people who hate labour in general and unions in particular? Is that why some of the beautiful people, those who are either rich or determined to get rich, are big supporters of IPP?
What's on earth does that last line about sleep mean?
Dec 10, 2009 at 3:20pm
If producing surplus IPP power at a high cost and selling it to the US or Alberta at half price is such a good proposition, then why do the IPPs want BC Hydro to have a piece of the action? Why aren't the IPPs clamouring to sell their unreliable, intermittent power directly?
And why do Suzy and Berman like dams if they are built by IPPs but not by BC Hydro?
Dec 10, 2009 at 4:40pm
It's really refreshing to see a list of comments by people who are actually informed (err except welldoneson)!
I would just like to re-iterate Follow the Money's comment on natural gas exploration.
Why is the BC energy plan so focused on zero-net emissions from any new electricity generation, yet the last 2/3 of the report are completely focused on exploration of unconventional gas deposits and removing the federal moratorium on off-shore exploration & development?
The [Energy plan] goal is to expand natural gas exploration and production to sell to other jurisdictions, yet Burrard thermal is condemned for using the same product? I have personally toured the plant, and it certainly has extensive infrastructure in place for reducing NOx and SOx emissions, so please don't be tricked into thinking it is some black smoke, pollution spewing plant.
My point is, the BC energy plan has areas that are counter-intuitive; electricity generation mandated to be clean and green(I still don't understand the definition of clean and green, but that's besides the point), yet 60% of the report is focused on oil and gas exploration.
I think that this news article should have been titled "Burrard thermal - victim of BC's energy plan?"