Current Affairs


Navigating the waters of B.C.’s hydroelectric policies

By Roberta Staley

Wendy Palen manoeuvres her 4x4 up twisting, gravel roads, over fallen tree logs, and across weathered timber bridges spanning the jade-green Squamish River. Although surrounded by breathtaking landscape, she is not simply sightseeing on today’s journey northwest of Vancouver. Rather, her goal is to observe a run-of-river hydropower project built in 2007 on a tributary of the Squamish River called Ashlu Creek, a boulder-strewn waterway with steep canyons that draws kayakers.

SFU’s Palen, an assistant professor and Canada research chair in aquatic conservation in the Department of Biological Services, Earth to Ocean Research Group, is considered an emerging authority on run-of-river hydropower projects. Just one year ago, Palen became architect and project lead of an innovative think tank created to enhance our understanding of the future compromises, or tradeoffs, British Columbians will have to make between cost-efficient energy and a pristine environment.

The think tank accomplishes a first all-important step: bringing together stakeholders who have been noted for divisiveness rather than collaboration. The group includes environmentalists, BC Hydro, and Clean Energy BC, representing run-of-river hydropower operators, along with academia. This quartet is focused on devising strategic, long-range plans that balance the preservation of wilderness and iconic species with the energy requirements of a growing, urbanized population and an evolving economic diversification plan. “This study is meant to advance the big unknown of the impact of many small run-of-river hydropower facilities,” says Palen.

Ultimately, she adds, a fifth stakeholder – the public – will be involved. All British Columbians, she believes, have a role to play in moulding future energy policy that balances environmental stewardship with economic growth. “This will be a tool for people to articulate their values and explore alternative futures,” says Palen.

The legislative umbrella to this initiative is the British Columbia Clean Energy Act. The act has two major objectives: spurring economic growth while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy initiatives: wind, hydro, thermal, and biomass.

“Tailed frogs are one of the oldest frogs  still alive on the planet,” says Palen.
“There are only two species and they both occur in B.C.”

Run-of-river projects and especially big hydro dams have long generated emotional debate in B.C. Definitive research on the effects, however, is sorely lacking, says Palen.

As think tank lead, Palen’s role is to create a “decision support tool” based on scientific evidence. As an academic, Palen has teams of students, from undergraduates to post-docs, working on run-of-river hydropower studies throughout the province. She also has numerous experts in ecology, ecosystems, climate change, biological sciences, and geology from across North America to draw upon as she creates computer models that assess the tradeoffs between the environment and energy development. This modelling will present data on proposed hydropower projects. Should construction of a suite of run-of-river projects along a waterway be limited to preserve the last habitat of, say, tailed frogs? “Tailed frogs are one of the oldest frogs still alive on the planet,” says Palen. “There are only two species and they both occur in B.C. Unfortunately, their habitat overlaps with run-of-river potential so they’re right in the crosshairs.”

Palen believes that the preservation of such remarkable and iconic species and wild spaces is part of the uniqueness and spirit of B.C. This passion for wild spaces was nurtured as a young girl growing up near the salt marshes of Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. “I was one of those kids who tried to catch everything – not to hurt it or kill it, but because I was fascinated by turtles, frogs, snakes, and everything else,” says Palen. This evolved into a career in biology: a PhD from the University of Washington, post-doctoral work at University of California Berkeley, and, six years ago, a move to Canada. “I fell in love with western landscapes.”

But Palen faces a significant challenge as she develops an enlightened dialogue for B.C. that is “grounded in sound science and the values of the citizenry.” First, she must develop credibility and gain the trust of the think tank’s powerful stakeholders in order to forge a middle ground between government, business, and environmentalists. “Because I am a scientist in the natural sciences, some players feel that I am automatically aligned with the interests of the conservationists.”

But she is not. Instead, her role is to present compromises that uphold these often-opposing interests. “It’s solutions oriented, which is the future of conservation,” Palen says. Interestingly, she adds, this model is built on what some scholars consider the failure of environmentalism. Inspired by Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring, environmentalism spawned laws worldwide to protect land, water, and animals. By the 1980s, however, environmentalism became linked to extremism, and conservation policy was rife with conflict. The losers? Wild spaces and species.

One of the stakeholders of the think tank, Clean Energy BC executive director Paul Kariya, admits that a lack of trust and credibility were, indeed, an issue at the beginning. “My first reaction was fear,” Kariya says with a laugh. This was followed by, “I wonder what the negative effects will be.” In the past year, however, Palen’s scientific rigour and objectivity have won Kariya over. “As I’ve come to know Wendy a bit better I think she’s the right kind of person: this bright, young academic who cares passionately about the world she lives in and wants to make a difference in bridging these gulfs.”

Palen faces a significant challenge as she develops an enlightened dialogue for B.C. that is “grounded in sound science and the values of the citizenry.”

An additional challenge for Palen’s think tank will be to provide scientifically accurate information detailing the benefits and drawbacks of hydro projects, large and small. An average hydropower project – producing energy for about 15,000 homes over a 30- to 40-year period – has a relatively low environmental footprint. However a network of them, especially along the same waterway, would dramatically increase the number of transmission lines and roads slicing the B.C. wilderness, intruding upon natural habitat and enabling human recreational and hunting activities. Alternatively, massive dams and hydroelectric generating stations like the proposed Site C Clean Energy Project in Peace River in northeastern B.C. will provide clean energy for 465,000 homes for a century, reports BC Hydro. Here, tradeoffs include the flooding of First Nations heritage sites, agricultural land, and key wildlife corridors for ungulates and grizzlies.

Hydropower, considered clean and renewable, generates about 15 percent of the world’s energy. In B.C., more than 85 percent of the province’s electricity is created by large hydro dams located mainly along the Peace and Columbia Rivers. Another five percent is supplied by about 30 small run-of-river facilities that vary widely in output and age.

Construction of large hydro projects – expensive to build and mired in controversy and legislative delays – are falling out of favour. The construction of smaller run-of-river projects, financed by private operators who sell the power they generate to BC Hydro, is more economical for the province, as private sector operators shoulder the initial capital investment. Despite the financial risk for run-of-river entrepreneurs, says Palen, there is currently a “gold rush” of project licence applications, with 800 filed with the province and more than 7,000 potentially profitable sites identified by BC Hydro.

We’ve reached the Ashlu Creek run-of-river hydro project, within sight of Mount Garibaldi, B.C.’s best-known volcano. The creek has been dammed to create a large reservoir the size of several football fields. One of the oldest technologies in the world, run-of-river facilities utilize a dam releasing water that flows to a turbine (historically a paddle wheel), thus powering a generator. This energy is converted into electricity and transported along transmission lines to BC Hydro – generating stations.

A gush of water hurtles out of a pipeline in the middle of the Ashlu Creek dam, partly replenishing the downstream natural water supply. Run-of-river operators are required by law to allow only five percent of the water that naturally flows downstream back into the creek bed. Next to the pipeline is a square steel pipe that goes all the way into the reservoir. This apparatus, called a fish ladder, was built to allow resident trout to move upstream. Such efforts by run-of-river operators to lessen the impact on fish are laudable, says Palen, and part of good hydropower policy. However, further changes need to be made to ensure that run-of-river operators became even better environmental stewards.

One potential problem, she says, is the natural distribution of gravel and silt downstream by running water that forms spawning grounds for fish species like steelhead and coho salmon. Dams stop such natural deposits, and this is a key area of research that will fall under Palen’s scrutiny.

As we drive back to Vancouver, Palen emphasizes that science, not environmental politics, drives her. “The message is that data is what makes good policy.” This mandate, Palen believes, will have long-term, positive repercussions for the province. Future generations should not have to look back in regret at hastily contrived decisions based solely on economic considerations or opportunistic politics that resulted in the loss of something irreplaceable – B.C.’s unique wilderness.

Photo illustration: Griffin Design, location portrait and hydro dam: Roberta Staley, Tailed Frog: Joshua Malt, all other photos courtesy Wendy Palen