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Mar 13,2014 Tri City News


A major upgrade at Burrard Thermal included the installation of selective catalytic reduction units to achieve a 90% reduction in nitrogen oxides emissions — a first in Canada. - tri-city newS FILE PHOTO
A major upgrade at Burrard Thermal included the installation of selective catalytic reduction units to achieve a 90% reduction in nitrogen oxides emissions — a first in Canada.
— image credit: tri-city newS FILE PHOTO

Late last year, the provincial government announced BC Hydro’s Burrard Thermal generating station would close by 2016. This hardly seems sensible given that this plant, which generates electricity from natural gas, recently had the capacity to supply almost 10% of B.C.’s electricity needs.

With an ideal location in the centre of the Lower Mainland close to approximately half of the province’s population, it is well situated to provide electricity in the event of emergencies such ice storms or fires in the Interior that could cause problems along the lengthy transmission lines.

In the winter of 2008, hazardous ice conditions on the Williston Reservoir on the Peace River created an emergency that resulted in the Burrard plant firing up five of its six generating units to meet our electricity needs. Who knows when the next time Arctic outflows could hit again?

Although no longer in full-time use due to concerns over smog generation during the summer, Burrard Thermal went through a costly and major upgrade from 1994 to 2001. This included the installation of selective catalytic reduction units to achieve an impressive 90% reduction in nitrogen oxides emissions, which made it the first natural gas generating station in Canada to be so outfitted.

Since then, it has been maintained and kept ready to respond in case of emergencies, although three of its six units have been quietly mothballed in recent years.

Every winter for many years, Burrard has been used to provide critical “peaking power” during the coldest and darkest months of the year, when electricity consumption reaches its annual maximum. With climate change now causing unpredictable weather conditions, I am glad Burrard is close by. It also has capacity to generate electricity during low water years. With California now experiencing a record-breaking drought, it’s not impossible that B.C. could face a similar situation sometime in the future.

So why close it? The problems are an arbitrary clause in the government’s Clean Energy Plan, which stipulates 93% of electricity in BC must come from renewable resources (e.g., water) plus government policies that favour private power producers over electricity generated in-house by BC Hydro. Burrard Thermal currently accounts for a small fraction of the 7% of electricity allowed to come from non-renewable resources. Although BC Hydro seems loathe to admit it, the main sources of natural gas-generated electricity in B.C. are from privately-owned generating plants.

The largest of these is the Island Generation natural gas plant in Campbell River on Vancouver Island. With a capacity of 275 megawatts and an ability to provide 2,300 gigawatt hours/year of electricity, this plant now accounts for most of the natural-gas derived electricity in B.C.

The other large privately owned plant is the McMahon plant in Taylor, with a capacity of 105 MW and an output of 840 GWh/yr. Taylor, located on the Peace River, suffers from the same problem as electricity generated from the Williston Reservoir — it’s a long way from the Lower Mainland, with risks of ice storms, fires and other problems along the transmission route.

Campbell River isn’t so close, either. Yet, despite such a disadvantage, BC Hydro has a contract until 2022 to pay Island Generation $50 million a year to keep its Campbell River plant on standby. In addition, BC Hydro covers Island’s costs to purchase natural gas should the Campbell River plant be needed to generate electricity. To my mind, this is an outrageous giveaway to a private company.

Keeping the larger Burrard Thermal plant on standby in case of emergencies and to meet annual peak power demands would cost only an additional $14 million per year — this seems like a bargain in contrast.

The decision to shut down Burrard Thermal is yet one more questionable action that has been removed from the purview of the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC). Whenever the province prohibits input from BCUC, I fear another flawed policy decision will be the outcome.

During BC Hydro’s most recent call for public input on its Integrated Electricity Plan, the submission from Fortis BC stated: “Burrard Thermal is a valuable and cost-effective existing resource near the load centre that should play an important role in providing a capacity resource over the long term. Its use should be re-examined.”

I am also not a big fan of the Site C proposal. But even if this dam is built and another 83 km of the Peace River is flooded to generate electricity mainly for use elsewhere in B.C., BC Hydro still anticipates a possible shortage of electricity to meet peak periods of demand until at least 2024. If we have to buy such electricity on the open market, this could cost as much as $1,000/MWh — or more by 2024. Right now, we can generate electricity from Burrard for $100 to $150/MWh, depending the on the cost of natural gas.

It seems to me a wiser decision would be to keep the Burrard Thermal plant open and ready to operate to meet such future demands and be available to deal with unforeseen emergencies.

Elaine Golds is a Port Moody environmentalist who is conservation/education chair of the Burke Mountain Naturalists, chair of the Colony Farm Park Association and a founding director of the board of the Port Moody Ecological Society.

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