Imagine the Sea to Sky corridor as a scene of widespread destruction, trees levelled in every direction, piled helter-skelter as if vast swaths of forest had been taken out by the sweep of a giant's hand, and with steep mountainsides below magnificent peaks, formerly green, now scarred brown by rockfall and displaced soil, tell-tale clouds of dust hanging in the air. A veritable paroxysm upon the land.
In spite of what this sounds like, I'm not jumping on the South Coast Media Earthquake Bandwagon™® here. (You know, the one that cracks [ha ha] back into existence anytime there's a "Big One" elsewhere in the world to parrot repeated warnings on how we're in for the same sometime in the next five-minutes- to-500 years and how it will be such a mess and we damn well better be prepared.) No, instead I am describing, without exaggeration, what you actually see as you drive from West Vancouver to Lillooet these days — from the far side of Howe Sound to Culliton Creek to Wedge Creek, from Rutherford Creek to the Ryan River, Mount Currie and Upper Lillooet to name a few. And almost all of this very real ruination comes courtesy of B.C.'s platoon of (often American-owned) IPP developers.
Back in September, 2013, long before the current slate of all-too-visible blights began, indefatigable political pundit Rafe Mair wrote of BC hydro's darkening future in TheTyee.ca. He was not, as you can imagine, bullish on IPPs:
"We British Columbians are the ongoing and apparently disinterested victims of a world-class deception and it has gone on since 2002 when Gordon Campbell announced British Columbia's new Energy Plan," he announced, starting there because "that's where the decade of incredibly stupid policy regarding BC Hydro began. From that moment on BC Hydro wasn't permitted to bring on new sources of energy, Site C excepted. All new power was to be made by private companies. Which meant:
1. BC Hydro would be forced to contract out all its new power.
2. Each contract was on a 'take or pay' basis, meaning that Hydro would have to take the power whether or not it needs it (most of the time it doesn't), or pay for it anyway.
3. Electricity is in short supply in the months leading up to the 'run-off' and thereafter until the next run-off. Because water levels are for the most part too low for independent power producers (IPPs) to produce, this means that virtually all private power is delivered to BC Hydro when they don't need it!
4. This means that BC Hydro, because the contracts imposed on them say so, must pay IPPs more than double the market price! And up to 10 times what they can produce it for!
5. BC Hydro, under government imposed contracts, must pay IPPs for this power they don't need: $50 billion over the next 25 to 30 years, meaning about $2 billion per year, indexed to the cost of living. This assumes that no more IPP contracts are let — yet new ones are being negotiated now."
Mair went on to point out that although the adverse effect of run-of-river IPPs could be devastating, they were inexplicably never penalized for breaking even the pathetically weak environmental rules B.C. had in place. The number of exclamation points he used suggests he was incredulous at what he was reporting — as incredulous as anyone driving Hwy 99 these days.
When you see the squadrons of heavy equipment, tree-cutting, rock-blasting, and road-building in improbably steep terrain you realize how expensive it must be to develop a run-of-river IPP, and how much dollar-return there must be at the back end to justify it. Cue Mair's "take or pay" explanation. Not only that, but his insinuation that the current IPP bonanza is a cart-before-the-horse enterprise was spot on: while the province has yet to carry out any strategic assessment/determination of where IPP projects should be located so as to minimize impact, development is proceeding willy-nilly. In other words, not only before the question is answered, but before it is even posed. And those of us who live near an IPP have little say in the matter.
In May 2006, the B.C. government passed Bill 30, clarifying that local governments will generally not have decision-making powers with respect to IPP projects on Crown land. The context and reason for the bill was, in fact, controversy around IPP development in the Sea to Sky corridor. Specifically, by the early 2000s, over 50 run-of-river sites had been identified here and community groups were already rattling swords, including but not limited to the SLRD dragging its feet on the Ashlu Creek IPP.
One of the most informative documents on B.C. IPPs is a 2009 backgrounder prepared by West Coast Environmental Law. In the context of climate change and clean-energy policies, this document accurately balances the noblesse oblige behind the government's original position with the very real problems it has created — most of which haven't been adequately addressed even now, six years later. To wit: how to assess negative impacts of industrial-scale clean/renewable energy development versus the environmental, social and economic threats posed by climate change, and the degree to which any trade-offs can be mitigated or avoided through conservation and energy efficiency strategies or improvements to the IPP regulatory framework.
One particularly cogent statement (or revelation, depending on your level of prior knowledge): "While IPP projects may produce 'clean/ renewable' electricity from a greenhouse gas/air pollution perspective, they are not necessarily 'green'... (requiring) extensive transmission lines, access roads and other infrastructure that impact on the environment, and the wildlife dependent upon it. (Run-of-river projects) also have the potential to negatively impact fish populations... and can also disturb visual/esthetic qualities of the landscape and interfere with recreational activities."
Welcome to today's Sea to Sky country tourists and locals!
As of October, 2014, BC Hydro had agreements to purchase electricity from 92 IPPs and another 32 were in development, the vast majority of both being run-of-river, non-storage hydro, spiced up with wind, biomass, biogas, and gas-fired thermal (yes, raise your eyebrow at that one). Looking at the distribution of IPPs in the province (http://www.bchydro.com/content/dam/BCHydro/customer-portal/documents/corporate/independent-power-producers-calls-for-power/independent-power-producers/ipp-supply-map.pdf ) you see a preponderance in Sea to Sky country — so many, in fact, that at this scale you can't even see the highway. Scary shit. Ugly, too.
As IPPs have grown in number and reach, so have their attendant problems (IPPPs seems appropriate), not least of which is the impact of their outrageous and unwarranted footprints on the land. In Sea to Sky country, their sudden proliferation now resembles a widespread disaster — indeed much like an earthquake.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.