Where Will BC Get the Electricity for Future LNG?

In BC's LNG-for-export gambit, electricity is only half of the equation. Water is the more significant other – leaving wild rivers vulnerable to speculation.

Sidney Coles

Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River | Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers

Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River | Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers

The BC government has a history of putting the hydroelectricity cart before the water supply horse. The result has been expensive and often devastating to Indigenous communities and to the environment in the northern interior of the province. These days, that cart is seriously outsized and the horse will soon be perilously overburdened.

Ninety-eight percent of BC’s electricity is generated by renewables, 87% by water. In its load forecasting model, BC Hydro calculates for population, industry and general economic growth. On the industry horizon, LNG (liquidified natural gas) stands out as the most energy intensive,  and what’s coming soon is the processing of billions of cubic metres of LNG slated to move though thousands of kilometres of new pipelines across the northern interior: Coastal GasLink, the Pacific Trails Pipeline, and pipelines for Ksi Limis LNG and Cedar LNG.

The demands of the physical plant at LNG Canada in Kitimat and other processing facilities will be high, but the biggest energy suck is in preparing the gas for export.

Liquefaction is an energy-intensive process that transforms gas into a “safely” transportable liquid form by supercooling it to -162oC. LNG Canada is a joint venture between Shell Canada, Petronas, PetroChina, Mitsubishi, and Korea Gas. Phase 2 of the project would double the capacity of the Kitimat facility from 14 to 28 million tonnes per year. So, how will the liquefaction of all the gas that will be piped into Kitimat, Bish Bay, and Pearse Island be powered in a not-too-distant future?

If the answer is by increasing hydroelectric capacity and transfer infrastructure, what does this mean for the region when electricity is only half of the equation? Water is the more significant other.

Site C power is spoken for

Don’t look to the controversial $16 billion Site C Project to meet growing LNG electrification demands. Its projected output is already accounted for by current industry and household needs. In September 2022, Hydro stakeholder engagement advisor Debra Lamash wrote in a newsletter, “Meeting the needs of potential large-scale industrial developments in this region will require new 500 kilovolt (kV) transmission lines and associated infrastructure to be developed from Prince George to Terrace.”

But the lines only transmit the energy, they don’t produce it. The energy source, she admits, is something they still need to figure out. The math, as the kids say, just isn’t “mathing.” We know this because the Pembina Institute has also been doing it.

By the time all five proposed LNG projects are running, they will require the generating capacity of eight Site C dams.

In its 2023 report Squaring the Circle,  the Pembina Institute suggested that, by the time all five proposed LNG projects are running, they will require the generating capacity of eight Site C dams. When asked in a recent email where BC Hydro planned to find new sources of hydroelectric potential, its spokesperson responded that its “power system is integrated and does not pinpoint a single resource to a certain area and the electricity will come from energy generated across the province.”

The is answer is conveniently vague. Where, exactly, from across the province? From what river or lake sources does Hydro hope to generate this much energy? The proposed floating Ksi Lisims Natural Gas and Terminal Project on Pearse Island on Nisga’a territory is slated to produce 12 million tonnes of LNG per year. Wind River Corporation has proposed a 50-80 megawatt power project north of Prince Rupert, BC. The project consists of a dam and storage reservoir at Kinskuch Lake and a tunnel, penstock, power house, and transmission line in the upper Kinskuch River system and Nass Valley. This is a veritable supply drop in the demand bucket.

New hydro resource options

In its most recent Integrated Resource Plan in 2021, BC Hydro isn’t shy about forecasted industry energy demands: “The North Coast region has the potential for considerable load growth as a result of liquified natural gas and mining developments.” In the same report, they calculate that it will require “new hydro resources” by 2030, and provide a shortlist of potential new resources options. Wind power is one option, biomass is another.

Run-of-river is also on that list and, given the demand-time crunch, a new run-of-river project would certainly square the math better than the others would. Run-of-river projects are designed differently than traditional hydroelectric projects in that they don’t have huge water stores or reservoirs. However, on the right river, they can be massive and can have the same generating capacity as a true hydroelectric dam. A good example of a large run-of-river project is the Chief Joseph Dam in Bridgeport WA. Because of their lack of reservoir, they work best if there is a lake upstream to help regulate flow.

See also: A “Climate solution”? Big Hydro Is Anything But: A growing body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence shows that large-scale hydropower generation is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions

“BC Hydro will initiate processes to draw on future resources earlier than indicated in the Base Resource Plan and rely on a temporary supply of market energy to meet near-term needs at the system level.” There are two key things to note in that Integrated Resource Plan statement. First, is the need for new resources, and second is the term “market energy.”

BC Hydro has a number of Independent Power Producers. Rio Tinto Alcan has been one of its best and brightest for some time, and is a significant supplier of “market energy.” Alcan was forced to reduce its production at Kitimat by a third, when, in 2000, it was faced with low water levels in the Nechako reservoir.

Under its 2007 electricity purchase agreement with BC Hydro, Alcan is obliged to sell all electricity from its Kemano generating station above the smelter’s load to BC Hydro, and BC Hydro is obliged to buy all electricity from the Kemano generating station above the smelter’s load, up to the capacity of the transmission system. Under their reciprocal agreement, Alcan will deliver surplus electricity from its Kemano plant to BC Hydro until the end of 2034. The Kemano Powerhouse has been receiving water from the Nechako Reservoir through a 16 km tunnel that is over 70 years old.

Kemano II

Kemano II or T2, a second tunnel running parallel to the old one, was finally completed in December 2022 after 30 months. The 1200 tonne steel Tahtsa Lake intake Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) that drilled it was 6.5 metres in diameter and 195 metres long. After a somewhat perverse naming competition, the tunneling beast was named “Tl’ughus” by the children from the Cheslatta Carrier Nation, after a mythological mountain serpent from their traditional lore.

The tunnel is clean, the plugs are built, and Alcan has started “watering it up.” Alcan’s update states that the 960 MW T2 Project is “different” from the much-maligned Kemano Completion Project, because it’s not about “additional power generation” and will not result in changes to the company’s water licence.

Will Alcan look to other hydro sources that aren’t the Nechako, and if so where? The Morice River (Wedzin Kwa), the Bulkley? The Nanika?

According to the update, no more water will be drawn from the Nechako Watershed than is currently being drawn. The Kemano Completion Project (Kemano II) was halted in 1995, after a BC Utilities report that identified it as the biggest threat to salmon stock in the Nechako River.

According to a Rio Tinto update, the new tunnel produced its first megawatt of electricity in July 2022 after its construction was completed in May 2022. Both T1 and T2 are now operating together, ensuring a reliable power supply for Rio Tinto’s BC Works aluminium smelter and to BC Hydro.

This being said, will Alcan look to other hydro sources that aren’t the Nechako, and if so where? The Morice River (Wedzin Kwa), the Bulkley? The Nanika?

See also: LNG to Europe? Ramped-up export sales are just a pipe dream, research shows

When asked directly about the Morice, a BC Hydro spokesperson said the river is not on the existing 500 kilovolt transmission line corridor and “we currently do not expect to cross the Morice River.”

But that answer doesn’t stop Alcan from doing it, then selling its surplus energy to BC Hydro, which it could then use to power LNG Canada in Kitimat.

“We can’t do an immediate and wholesale electrification of the plant and the pipeline. It’s not possible today because the transmission infrastructure just isn’t there.” This statement, which CEO Jason Klein made to Reuters on January 17, 2023, again only addresses half of the energy resource demand problem by leaving out the water.

So, while BC Hydro obfuscates, we must all be wary about this missing half of the equation, because it won’t be until new hydro resources are clearly identified by BC Hydro or Alcan or LNG Canada that we can know what river or lake is next.

Sidney Coles PhD, DPE candidate OISE, is an equity and human rights advocate and a recent transplant to BC.

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