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Feature - Power and liquid gold

Independent power producers have staked their claims in Sea to Sky country



It isn't little nuggets of shining ore that are fuelling B.C.'s latest gold rush.

In fact, there is nothing tangible about this latest get-rich-quick craze that is sweeping the province.

But like the gold that was discovered over 150 years ago in the creeks and riverbeds, the gold of the 21 st century is also found in B.C.'s plentiful water systems.

And just as gold miners rushed to stake claims on riverbed plots, independent power producers have been anxiously submitting proposals to the provincial government to build small hydroelectric projects, also known as run of river projects, on various rivers and creeks throughout the province.

There are currently 26 small hydroelectric projects operating in B.C., including one in the Soo Valley. But since BC Hydro announced it was actively looking for green energy sources, the provincial water management branch has been inundated with applications. There are now 270 applications waiting to be processed at the water branch, according to information from the ministry of sustainable resource management. In some instances there may be more than one application per river.

Although this type of green energy production will give Canada carbon credits if it ratifies the Kyoto Protocol, the potential ramifications of manipulating the water flow on hundreds of rivers have many people worried.

"As is so often the case in B.C. when we have such bountiful resources that have such economic value, rather than approach them in a sustainable manner, we tend to exploit them," said Mitch Rhodes, the president of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE). "It's like what we've done with the forestry and fishing industries."

The green rush was generated by BC Hydro in early 2000 when the utility announced it wanted to use green energy to meet at least 10 per cent of any new domestic energy requirements over the next 10 years.

Hydro is expecting the province’s energy demand to grow at about two per cent each year.

With the technology proven, Hydro was looking at run of river projects in particular as a way of meeting this voluntary 10 per cent requirement.

"We thought there were a lot of good projects out there and the private sector really wanted to build them," said Brenda Goehring, the manager of green and alternative Energy at BC Hydro.

Although there is no universal definition of what constitutes green energy, Hydro has established four basic guidelines, which each project must meet.

In addition to it being licensable and meeting all of the necessary regulations and standards, the project must have a low impact on the surrounding environment and it must be renewable and socially responsible.