Goldrush of Private Power Projects in BC

Northwest Cascade Power Inc wants to divert all 8 of the Upper Pitt’s main tributary streams into large pipes, totaling over 30 kilometres in length, which would require the park’s boundary to be “adjusted.” Public opposition to the plan is fierce.

by Joe Foy

The thing about power is that you often find it in themost unexpected places. I still remember an incident back in my teens when I learned about hidden power the hard way. 

Me and a group of my buddies were hiking up a steep heather slope towards Williams Peak in the Chilliwack River country. One of the guys ahead accidentally dislodged a large rock as he hiked up. In a blink of an eye that boulder took off and was bounding down the mountainside right towards my head as fast as if it had a rocket engine attached to it! Every time it hit and bounced the darn thing took off in a slightly different direction, making dodging it mighty tricky. But dodge it I did. 

Sitting in the meadow, I looked out over the mountain landscape. I could imagine that every rock, every boulder, had that same pent up energy just waiting to be released. That day I learned that the mountains were a totally different place than the flatlands by the Fraser River where I lived. Hidden power lurked not only in the rocks, but also in the winds that swooped from the peaks and in the white water streams that cascaded all around. 

When you flick a light switch or pour a glass of water from the tap in your kitchen, most likely you are welcoming BC’s hidden power of the mountains into your home. That’s because most of our electricity comes from the force of mighty rivers as they push from the mountains to the sea. Many of the province’s drinking water systems take advantage of the hidden power of the mountains to move the water that we drink and bathe with all the way from remote streams to our homes without the aid of a single pump. 

It’s an amazing system we have in BC. And what’s even more amazing is that we did it ourselves. Our drinking water and electrical production systems are publicly owned – a wonderful mix of hidden power from the mountains and people power from each and every one of us. Well – that was the case, until a few years back. 

In 2002, BC’s provincial government quietly banned BC Hydro, our crown corporation, from developing new sources of energy other than large hydro projects. Smaller hydro projects would have be built by private companies – and BC Hydro would be required to buy the power in long term contracts at rates as much as 20 times what it costs BC Hydro to produce power themselves. 

The rest as they say, is history. A kind of gold rush soon ensued with private corporations staking BC’s publicly owned rivers and streams at a dizzying pace. Today, over 60 water licenses have been granted for private hydropower projects in BC. There are now 433 additional applications pending – and the number continues to grow. 

One of these applications is on the Upper Pitt River system, a major salmon producing watershed located about 30 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. The company involved, Northwest Cascade Power Inc, wants to divert all 8 of the Upper Pitt’s main tributary streams into large pipes, totaling over 30 kilometres in length. The water would be run through power houses stationed throughout the watershed which would in turn be hooked up by a spider web of power lines, each requiring a swath of forest to be clearcut. The company has also proposed that a main power line be constructed through the Pinecone Burke Provincial Park from one side to the other, which would require the park’s boundary to be “adjusted.” 

Public opposition to the plan is fierce. At public meetings called by the company and the BC Ministry of Environment in Squamish, Pitt Meadows and Mission, hundreds of citizens have turned out to demand that the park, salmon, and rivers be protected and the private power project be axed. People are demanding that the Minister responsible for Parks, Barry Penner, step up and tell the company to get lost. 

At Pitt Meadows over 500 people attempted to pack into a room designed to hold 150, sparking a visit from the local Fire Marshal to close the meeting before most had a chance to speak. A second public meeting for Pitt Meadows is now in the works for March 25th at the Pitt Meadows Secondary School. All indications are that it will be a doosey. 

The company didn’t anticipate the wide-spread and growing opposition. Which just goes to show – the thing about power is that you often find it in the most unexpected places. 

***

Joe Foy is Campaign Director for the Wilderness Committee, Canada’s largest citizen-funded membership-based wilderness preservation organization.

[From WS March/April 2008]

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