Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Writing off Burrard Thermal

with 12 comments

I saw the story in the Vancouver Sun this morning and thought about blogging it. It quite an extra-ordinary event. The Premier has decided to “write off” a gas fired power station to encourage generation of cleaner electricity and an environmental group publishes a press release deploring it. The press release is copied untouched below.

Burrard Thermal was not used very much but it did provide a standby. Not that firing up a thermal station, which uses gas to raise steam which then drives turbines, is all that fast. Not as fast as “turning on the tap” at a dam – or lighting a jet engine, which is what a gas turbine is and which are used around the world for their efficiency and fast response. Proposals to replace the steam turbines with gas turbines at Burrard never went very far. Despite being one of the bigger polluters in the region, the air downwind of the chimneys was actually cleaner than upwind, thanks to the NOx paradox. The station was originally connected to the oil refinery – which closed years ago. It reflected a time when power stations were sited close to the users to reduce transmission losses. That no longer applies either.

The politics of power in BC are complex – and so are the issues around Burrard Thermal. And it really has nothing to do with the environment – but a lot to do with spin and optics and who your friends are and what you think is really important – making money or saving the place we live in to make it inhabitable for the future.

So now I am going to turn this over to Ben West.



The Wilderness Committee

For immediate release – Thursday, October 29, 2009

BC Government Overrules Independent Regulator
and Lines Pockets of Private Power Producers

Vancouver, BC – The Wilderness Committee today condemned the BC government’s decision to order BC Hydro to buy an additional 6,000 gigawatt hours of electrical power from private power producers, in direct opposition to what the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) has recommended.

“Requiring BC Hydro to purchase power that it doesn’t need is an idiotic decision and a gift to the private power industry. Three months ago, the BCUC said buying this power was not in the public interest, and yet the BC government is ignoring their own regulatory watchdog and ordering BC Hydro to spend billions of dollars on power we don’t need. This decision won’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions in BC by one iota, but it will damage a lot of streams and rivers in the process,” said Gwen Barlee, policy director with the Wilderness Committee.

“Private power coming from so-called ‘run of river’ projects comes mostly at the wrong time of year for British Columbians, is costing us far above market rates, and threatens our rivers and streams. Ratepayers are already on the hook for $31 billion in energy agreements to the likes of General Electric. The BC government’s decision to order Hydro to buy even more of this power is irrational and unacceptable,” said Wilderness Committee campaign director Joe Foy.

The BC government justified the decision to purchase more expensive private power by over-ruling the BCUC and reducing the “planning” capacity of Burrard Thermal, a gas-powered plant in Port Moody. Since 2002, Burrard Thermal has run at about five per cent of capacity, being used almost exclusively to provide firm emergency peak power backup in winter months. Ironically, Burrard Thermal will continue to operate in the same manner it has for the last seven years despite the government’s recent announcement.

The BC government has come under intense criticism since the introduction of the BC Energy Plan in 2002 which prohibited BC Hydro from producing new sources of hydroelectricity. The Energy Plan resulted in a gold rush which has seen over 800 water bodies, including lakes, staked by private power corporations. Private hydro projects have been heavily criticized for low environmental standards, lack of public input, and a lack of provincial or regional planning process.

“It is sadly ironic that while the BC government is bailing out the private power industry under the ruse of addressing climate change it is blasting ahead with contradictory plans to promote carbon-producing coal mines such as Klappan and Groundhog in northern BC, axing Live Smart BC, radically increasing subsidies to the oil and gas sector, and promoting massive highway expansion. People recognize hypocrisy when they see it and are aware that this gift to the private power sector has nothing to do with addressing global warming,” said Barlee.


The Wilderness Committee is Canada’s largest membership-based, citizen-funded wilderness preservation organization. We work for the preservation of Canadian and international wilderness through research and grassroots education. The Wilderness Committee works on the ground to achieve ecologically sustainable communities. We work only through lawful means.

Thank you for supporting wilderness.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 29, 2009 at 6:22 pm

12 Responses

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  1. If the government cared about the environment even 1% as much as they care about pleasing their campaign contributors we’d see plans for Hydro to build wind and tidal power plants.

    Tides alone could power the entire province and the source of that power is likely to remain viable for the next 8 billion years. That source being, of course, the rather large sphere that orbits our planet every 28 days.


    October 29, 2009 at 11:04 pm

  2. People of BC beware! You are being grossly manipulated by the Campbell government.

    The “decommissioning” of Burrard Thermal is a politician’s smoke screen to justify the awarding of thousands of unneeded megawatts to private power corporations.

    Here is why. Burrard Thermal is a backup plant. Always has. Always will be. And so Campbell’s announcement that this plant will used as a backup plant *changes nothing*, except on BC Hydro’s books. On paper, BC Hydro has just “lost” 6000 GwH which need to be “replaced”. How? Well, through private power of course!

    This summer, the BC Utilities Commission dissented with Campbell’s plan to sell out our rivers. The independent commission ruled that BC Hydro’s request for new energy was grossly inflated because energy conservation has not yet been properly tapped into. To justify the “need” for private power in spite of this ruling, the Campbell government needed to come up with a magic trick. Burrard Thermal provided just that.

    The problem of course – are you ready for this? – is that run-of-river energy plants are structurally *incapable* of providing the energy needed by British Columbians. Indeed, those private power plants produce their peak energy in the spring and summer, whereas we need most of our energy in the winter. It’s a hard fact dictated by the laws of hydrology.

    Consequently, the majority of electrons produced by private run-of-river plants are destined to California, profiting the bottom lines of General Electric, Plutonic Power, and other transnational corporations, but not British Columbians.

    This private power business is the scam of the century.

    Ivan Doumenc
    Vancouver, BC

    Ivan Doumenc

    October 30, 2009 at 8:22 am

  3. “Writing off” Burrard Thermal does not mean the plant being shut down. All it means is that it will not be counted in Hydro’s generating portfolio (note the that Blair Lekstrom did not use the word “decommission”). The government can’t shut it down, because the river diversion power they want to “replace” it with is not reliable (with a few small exceptions) in the cold winter months.

    What this means is that we’ll keep using it as much as we ever have, but instead of counting that we’ll “replace” it by throwing more contracts at companies that cannot actually meet our electricity demands, but do meet California’s, at the rather large cost of biodiversity in the river valleys they dam.

    And of course, there is the unmentioned reality that BC Hydro had planned to keep it only as a last-chance emergency back-up and outright replace it’s capacity through power-line upgrades in the near future in any case.

    This was a business decision, not an environmental one. If it had come coupled with a new set of stringent regulations for siting these projects, they might be able to give that some cover. In this case, it is clear the government is scratching backs and gladding hands, and the environment is the merest of fig leaf.


    October 30, 2009 at 12:08 pm

  4. I think you can probably say that any politician panders to his or her supporters and campaign contributors.

    Ron C.

    October 30, 2009 at 12:57 pm

  5. While I understand the concern about run of the river power projects from an environmental perspective, no one has ever explained to me what the difference between having an independent producer provide it and BC Hydro do it aside from having an ideological problem with free enterprise.

    I find a lot of good and necessary activism on the environmental front gets lost behind all this anti-profit stuff. Who cares where the power comes from?


    November 2, 2009 at 9:02 am

  6. The difference is that you the consumer are going to pay through the nose for those profits. BC Hydro was a utility controlled by the BCUC and required to operate in the public interest. As a result we had some of cheapest – and cleanest – power in North America. BC Hydro has been broken up into its component parts to facilitate its privatisation, prevented from increasing its own generating capacity, the BCUC has been sidelined and over ruled. The private sector power is not actually needed to meet BC’s demand but will be highly profitable if it is allowed to access the California market which is willing to pay a premium for green power. Many of the private power proposals will not actually meet California’s stringent definition of “green” but they are pressing on anyway, probably confident that they can get the rules changed there as they have here. BC Hydro used to generate a positive cash flow into the provincial coffers. That is now being diverted to private profits.

    An informed buyer of any product or service should care about where it comes from. There is considerable power in exercising your right to pick and choose what you pay for. In this case you have no choice – but you can expect to see your pocket picked and someone else doing very well at your expense.

    Stephen Rees

    November 2, 2009 at 9:17 am

  7. But having some of the cheapest power in N. America is a problem for conservation.

    Just because its cheap and plentiful doesn’t mean we should waste it. But that’s what legislated cheap prices does. We have some of the highest consumption rates in the world. There’s little incentive to reduce consumption except good will…

    I would prefer a public utility charging market price for our power. But that’s not in the cards as long as a politically appointed and mandated BCUC is setting the price.

    Why not sell clean power to California if they are willing to pay top $ for it? We will have accomplished alot if we can turn off a coal plant in the states and encourage British Columbia to be less wasteful with electricity. And with a public corp all the profits comes back to BC.


    November 3, 2009 at 12:49 am

  8. Nearly all of BC’s electricity demand can be met from existing hydro. BC is a next exporter of electricity. The government likes to say that BC Hydro needs to import power because that ignores other generators like Alcan, but the only reason for recent government action is to promote more private sector exports.

    Conservation in BC therefore, while it may be admirable for other reasons, has no impact on carbon emissions. There was some impact when the dams were built, but that is a bygone and does not feature in our present need to reduce GHG. The BC government has even cancelled conservation programmes despite the fact that even with our cheap electricity it was also better economics to save a megawatt hour than generate more of them.

    Consumers on low incomes in rental properties are not in a good position to either practice conservation or switch fuels. Increasing electricity prices therefore does not help them to save. Furthermore, many conservation efforts have noted a “bounce back” effect. More efficient refrigerators lead to people buying more appliances (things like wine coolers) not cutting their hydro bills. We are not talking about the low income sector here of course.

    I am not convinced that adding more generating capacity just for export does lead to the closure of coal plants. I think it is counter productive since increasing supply tends to reduce prices, other things being equal. “Power up” is still about economic growth. It is not part of the very necessary overall reduction in consumption of everything – not just energy – that we need to pursue to reduce our ecological footprint.

    Stephen Rees

    November 3, 2009 at 8:57 am

  9. Conservation allows us to export more clean power and that shuts off coal power generators in Alberta and in the US. Hence lack of conservation has a real impact on carbon emissions (outside of BC, and for the big picture it doesn’t matter where they are emitted).

    Low prices locally discourages conservation, but we are stuck with this due to the mandate of the BCUC.

    I agree though that renters have difficulty reacting to higher electricity costs, and would be limited in what they can do. I know BCSEA was doing some studies on what landlords could do, I don’t recall where that ended up. The 2 tier rate system is likely a step in the right direction to help poorer consumers while still promoting conservation. In the longer term, this could be dealt with through the building code, better insulation, solar hotwater and banning baseboard heaters in favour of heat exchangers, etc.


    November 4, 2009 at 12:29 am

  10. Here’s the reference to the BCSEA work for energy conservations and landlords:


    November 4, 2009 at 12:39 am

  11. I do not know of any coal fired power stations that have shut down due to our power exports, nor do I think it realistic to expect that they will just because we export more “premium” power. Power up does not stimulate conservation it expands supply

    Stephen Rees

    November 4, 2009 at 3:38 pm

  12. A very good summary recently appeared in the Tri City News from Elaine Golds – a Port Moody environmentalist who is vice-president of Burke Mountain Naturalists, chair of the Colony Farm Park Association and president of the Port Moody Ecological Society

    Stephen Rees

    November 7, 2009 at 12:37 pm

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