Close to 180 participants from all sides of BC’s heated debate about the future of renewable electricity generation gathered in Vancouver earlier this week at West Coast Environmental Law’s Dialogue on Emerging Solutions for Clean, Green Power in BC. There has been a lot of controversy in the past few years about the provincial government’s push to increase the number of smaller-scale renewable energy projects in BC built and operated by private independent power producers (IPPs) (for details of the debate, see our IPP Questions and Answers booklet). The dialogue panel included representatives from government, local and national environmental groups, groups favouring the exclusive use of public power, municipalities, First Nations, industry, and academics.
While the speakers and participants had a diversity of views and disagree on a number of big questions about how BC should proceed with renewable energy (like the role of the private sector, and whether BC should engage in significant electricity exports), we were struck by the amount of common ground and agreement in the room. There appeared to be more unity among participants on basic principles than division. For example, there was wide agreement that climate change is a crisis that requires us to act quickly to take measures to constrain it, but to act appropriately. It was also widely agreed that conserving energy must be the top priority, but that new renewable generation would be needed to enable the necessary and massive transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy.
However, a number of dialogue participants emphasized that a transparent process at a provincial level was also required to reach greater clarity about the objective of renewable energy development and its relationship to BC’s own electrical needs, and this will influence whether and how much expansion is required. Furthermore, since all power generation projects have environmental impacts – affecting rivers, forests, and the wildlife and human communities that rely on them – it was generally agreed that BC needs a process to credibly, inclusively and strategically plan where these projects should and shouldn’t be allowed, and to consider what trade-offs we are willing to make as we move to increase BC’s renewable electricity generation. The IPP industry as well has agreed that better regional renewable electricity planning is required, though they are naturally concerned about the amount of time that this might take. The lack of any real planning, and the absence of any real role for the public and First Nations in decision-making, is one reason that the debate and opposition to the government’s plans has been so strong.
In December, sensing that agreement on these issues was possible, twenty-six organizations on different ends of the IPP debate came together to make six basic consensus recommendations for how BC should move forward. The Recommendations for Responsible Clean Electricity Development in British Columbia repeat what was heard at the Dialogue Forum: BC needs to quickly create a renewable energy planning framework that will maximize public benefit while limiting negative environmental, social and economic impacts, and IPP projects must have stronger environmental assessments.
Precisely how this planning should be done was the main topic of discussion at the Dialogue Forum on Clean, Green Energy. Participants recognized that it wouldn’t have to take forever to get the process started, because much of the raw data that you would need already exists in provincial and First Nations land use plans. Since these plans already exist, renewable energy planning wouldn’t start from scratch and the new planning layer could simply build on the work that has already been done. But who should do the planning, and what sorts of criteria should be considered?
There are a number of different provincial agencies that one could imagine coordinating the creation of a plan for exactly where renewable energy projects should and should not be built. For example, the Integrated Land Management Bureau might be a sensible option, or the Ministry of the Environment. Cam Matheson, Director of Energy Planning from BC Hydro demurred saying that Hydro wasn’t well positioned to play this role, but some participants disagreed! The planning could also be led on a regional or watershed level – the consensus recommendations call for an overarching provincial plan with regional cumulative effects assessments to look at specific areas. For run-of-river power, it wouldn’t be necessary to enact new legislation in order to carry out this planning – the Water Act allows cabinet to designate a process to create water management plans, and makes those plans enforceable (Part 4 of the Act). Whichever agency or agencies take the lead, the groups gathered at the Dialogue Forum made clear that the public needs to have a meaningful opportunity to participate. The province would also have to involve First Nations in the design of the process, and ensure that First Nations are recognized as decision-makers on the development of these resources in their own territories.
In thinking about the trade-offs involved in developing renewable electricity resources in the province, there are a lot of different factors that should be considered in order to make informed decisions. The public would need to be involved in an intensive and time-limited process to identify what these factors, so that the process could begin quickly and have broad buy-in from communities. Prof. Robert Gibson of the University of Waterloo, a leader in sustainability planning in Canada, spoke at the Dialogue Forum and he pointed out that, beyond ecological impacts, a much wider range of considerations need to be taken into account. Because ecological, social, cultural and economic objectives are interdependent, each of these areas must be considered in our thinking about sustainability. For example, the impacts of resource development on socio-ecological system integrity, on people’s livelihoods and opportunities, and on equity among people today, and between generations, should all be considered. The focus should be on achieving multiple, mutually reinforcing gains in each of these areas while minimizing negative impacts. Prof. Gibson emphasized that this sort of planning need not take forever – with concerted focus and effort from the government and communities, it could be done reasonably quickly. While the results may not be perfect, they would certainly be an improvement on doing the current situation in which no planning is done at all.
While there is broad agreement that BC needs to properly plan renewable electricity generation, the discussion will continue to refine the details. We need to act swiftly to contribute to the fight against climate change by conserving energy, and moving away from fossil fuels towards renewable, low-impact energy. But BC’s rivers and its ecosystems are treasures that need the best possible environmental protection. That’s why we need to plan renewable electricity development thoughtfully, and we need to do it right.
You’re welcome to continue the discussion on how we should move forward, how renewable electricity should be planned in BC, and what criteria should be used in making those plans, in the comments below.
By Josh Paterson