It's been a long wait but Arthur DeJong, manager of mountain planning and environmental resources, couldn't be happier. The Fitzsimmons Creek run-of-river hydro plant at last went into operation last week, using turbines to pump out electricity.
The project was developed by Innergex Renewable Energy Inc. in a partnership with Ledcor Power Group.
The victory was temporary, however, as the hydro plant shut down for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games by prior agreement. There was some concern that the power system, which is linked to Whistler Blackcomb's power plant, could cause problems with the Whistler Sliding Centre. It will resume operations in March.
DeJong was thrilled that the project could be completed and tested in time for the Olympic Games, allowing the resort to share the story with the world.
"I just went to my notes this morning (for a tour with French media), and I can tell you we started this process in 2001," he said. "How do I feel right now? Relief. Excitement? Stability, in the sense that we've delivered something meaningful.
"Every step (to sustainability) counts, everything we do from using energy efficient light bulbs to cleaner burning fuel, but it's nice every now and then to take a major step."
Whistler Blackcomb was instrumental in facilitating the $33 million project, doing much of the preliminary study in order to attract an investor. The goal was to foster the development of a renewable energy project that would offset Whistler Blackcomb's annual power consumption - not directly, however, as Whistler Blackcomb uses most of its power during the winter months while the run-of-river project will produce the most power between the months of May and August, when the water level in Fitzsimmons Creek is highest. All of the power produced from the Fitzsimmons IPP will be sold to B.C. Hydro and distributed through the grid through a 40-year contract.
The Fitzsimmons has a maximum capacity of 7.5 MW per hour (5.0 MW net) and the estimated year-round output is in the neighbourhood of 33,000 MW-hours, which exceeds Whistler Blackcomb's consumption. It's also roughly enough to power 10,000 homes, although the actual output will depend on factors like snowpack and rainfall which vary from year to year.
While some IPPs are controversial because of potential impacts to fish and wildlife downstream, the requirement for new roads and hydro lines and the recreational value for paddlers, the Fitzsimmons Creek met with virtually no opposition. The affected area is above an existing snowmaking reservoir and waterfall and won't affect fish or wildlife. There were already roads into the area and the power plant connects to the grid through Whistler Blackcomb's own power station so no additional towers are required.
The Fitzsimmons Creek project is a joint venture between Innergex, which owns two thirds of the project and Ledcor Power Group, which owns the remaining third. Innergex now owns four renewable power projects and has another five projects under development.
The Fitzsimmons Creek project also qualified for a federal incentive program, ecoENERGY for Renewable Power Program, which will provide an incentive of $10 per MW-hr for the first 10 years of the project.
According to DeJong, the Fitzsimmons Creek project is only the beginning. At the start of the winter Whistler Blackcomb had planned to install a small windmill outside the Crystal Hut that would provide some of the buildings' power, but the early start to the winter caught the resort off-guard.
"It was not nearly as big as the 1.5 megawatt windmill at Grouse, it is just 90 feet high with a blade span of about 20 feet - just enough for the Crystal Hut," he said.
"The real point is to get more wind data and assess whether a commercial operation is possible here."
The test windmill won't be intrusive he said, but will be visible from the area.
In addition to testing wind power, De Jong says the new windmill will also test the public's views on windmills.
"We want stakeholders to take notice so we can have that discussion," he said. "If we can find a reliable-enough wind source we want to pursue this."