The government of British Columbia (BC) is asking the province's two electricity distributors to buy at least 50% of new power supplies from clean sources over the next ten years, but just how meaningful the new target turns out to be will hinge on how it is implemented. "It all depends on the definition of what is clean energy," says Andrew Pape-Salmon, director of Pembina Institute's sustainable energy program and a former director of the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA).
The 50% voluntary target is one of 26 measures outlined in British Columbia's recently unveiled energy policy. The 50 page document lists a broad range of potential clean energy technologies, from low-impact renewables like wind, small hydro and tidal power to efficiency improvements at existing facilities. Cogeneration is also on the list, raising questions in the minds of renewables advocates like Pape-Salmon.
"Does it include industrial scale or just small one to ten megawatt systems like you'd find in a hospital or university? If that's the case, I'd say this is an extremely aggressive target. But if it includes cogen plants in the 100 MW plus range, then basically it's a non-target," he says.
Some are already questioning how significant any target can be if it is voluntary. "It may never happen," comments Gerry Scott of the David Suzuki Foundation. Pape-Salmon says a voluntary standard may not be problematic. While BC's 1.6 million power customers are mainly served by government-owned BC Hydro, about 135,000 in south-central BC are served by Aquila Networks Canada. Pape-Salmon suspects the provincial government did not want to place the burden of a mandatory standard on a utility with such a limited customer base. "They are such a small player that I'm not too concerned," he says. BC Hydro has already surpassed its own commitment to meet 10% of new energy requirements from green sources and has indicated it is ready to go higher. "If they accept a voluntary target, then they are going to implement it," says Pape-Salmon.
Jim Scouras, the strategy manager for BC Hydro's green and alternative energy group, says his team is still working out what the clean energy goal really means. But he says he is pleased to see an aggressive target, even one that "may be a bit of stretch" for the utility. "It helps us understand what kind of leadership our owner wants to take. Our job is to figure out how that can work within the parameters that they've provided," he says. For BC Hydro, the 50% target would mean the purchase of 2500-3000 GWh of clean energy through 2012.
All new resource acquisitions by BC Hydro and Aquila will be subject to regulatory oversight by the BC Utilities Commission, which has been instructed to take the clean energy goal "into account" in its deliberations. Scouras also expects the commission to solicit input on how the target should be met. "I think that's really, down the road, what's envisaged," he says.
At the same time as it sets a clean power standard, the energy plan opens the door to coal fired generation, something BC has never had despite estimated coal reserves of more than 255 billion tonnes. "To allow a fair evaluation of the role of coal fired generation in BC's electricity future," the policy states, "the province will adopt emission guidelines for coal fired power plants that will allow BC to compete for investment with neighbouring jurisdictions." The plan, which the government expects to fully implement by 2004, also encourages development of coal-bed methane and sets up a team to guide development of the province's offshore oil and gas resources.
Scott is not impressed. "This energy plan simply allows BC to expand conventional sources of energy at a time we should be going in the opposite direction," he says. Pape-Salmon says it appears the government is trying to "please everybody" rather than develop a coherent energy strategy. "In particular, they are trying to please their constituents in the mining industry," he says. "There's a strong emphasis on coal here, almost to the point of advocacy for coal."
The government's decision to reorganise BC Hydro and the province's wholesale power market also has implications for BC's fledgling wind industry. The utility will be split into two separate companies, one that will take over BC Hydro's generation and distribution businesses and one that will operate the province's transmission grid.
Access for wind
Independent power producers will be able to access the transmission system and sell directly to large consumers. They will also be responsible for developing all new generation in the province. BC Hydro's role in developing future electricity supply will be limited to upgrading its existing generating facilities.
The utility has been an active player in wind. It is partnering with Montreal's Axor Group to develop the Rumble Ridge wind demonstration project on Vancouver Island and has been collecting wind data from sites throughout the province since April 2000. Cynthia Dyson, the utility's senior environmental co-ordinator, says the decision to have BC Hydro get out of the generation business will not affect Rumble Ridge. "We still see that as a good opportunity to test the resource on Vancouver Island."
The utility is still trying to decide what to do with its monitoring data, she says. "Do we sell that to developers, do we do a green call and share that information so that it makes it easier for independent power producers to bid? That's all still in discussion. We certainly do not want to see all the good work to go to waste."
However the utility decides to release the data, says Pape-Salmon, it should happen immediately. "What is happening is that wind is being stifled. We've had developers look at BC, but it's a complex terrain. We need data and we don't have it."