Giving the green light for BC small hydro

16 December 2008

Independent power producers are taking up the challenge to develop British Columbia’s plentiful supplies of small hydro. Suzanne Pritchard reports

When it comes to global super powers, Canada is right up there amongst the leading hydro power nations producing 341,312GWh of hydroelectric power. In this vast North American country big was perhaps always considered to be the best when talking about hydro generation. In the province of British Columbia (BC), 90% of energy comes from the 10,000MW which can be stored at hydroelectric dams built in the 1960s and 1980s.

Well known for its mountainous topography and abundant rainfall, the coastal regions of British Columbia can have more than 4m of rainfall per year. In addition, the province’s sheer size, run-off from snow melt and thousands of creek reaches mean it is also ideally suited for run-of-river hydro power. ‘There is phenomenal potential for small hydro here,’ says Mike Wise, vice chair of the hydro committee for the Independent Power Producers Association of British Columbia (IPPBC). ‘The hydro sites are just fantastic.’

Beyond British Columbia’s ideal geographic setting for hydro power is the unique ‘green’ design of the run-of-river projects. ‘This design is very different to hydro projects almost anywhere in the world. It is the sole reason why we are judged to have the lowest environmental impact,’ says Steve Davis, president of the IPPBC.

‘We do not have big storage reservoirs,’ says Davis. ‘In fact, typical headpond is only the size of a soccer field. While most others have short, thick pipes in tall concrete dams, our projects have long, narrow steep pipes and low rubber weirs. Our glaciated hanging valleys and alpine lakes enable us to locate the projects above a natural fish barrier and still get lots of head. So unlike most other hydro projects we are able to avoid directly impacting fish habitat.’

There are a staggering 460,000 creek reaches in British Columbia. Recent research estimates that there are over 8000 potential hydro sites in the province. BC is also blessed with many other ways to generate electricity with ample natural gas, powerful wind sites, geothermal hot spots and tonnes of wood waste from the province’s world scale forestry industry. Nonetheless, over 80% of the projects that have won recent competitive contracts have been run-of-river. With so many potential sites it is easy to understand why British Columbia is experiencing a renewed interest in its small hydro capabilities. And independent power producers (IPPs) are leading the way.

Championing the cause

IPPBC is championing the cause for IPPs in British Columbia. Established in the early 1990s, the association’s membership in 2001 was 22. Today it has grown to 335 with members from all fuels including hydro, wind, biomass, geothermal, energy recovery generation, ocean and solar.

The biggest cause of the IPP industry turnaround in 2001 was that BC became a net energy importer. Load growth surged and resulted in BC Hydro resuming the issue of Calls for Power.

‘A lot has changed over the past few years,’ explains Jack Carthy, chair of IPPBC’s hydro committee. ‘We now have vibrant and energetic IPPs with membership of IPPBC continuing to grow.’

The 2002 and 2007 BC Energy Plans helped establish policy foundations for ‘made-in-BC’ solutions to the global challenge for secure, reliable and affordable electricity. The province currently imports up to 15% of its annual energy, most of which is from non-renewable sources. Its ultimate aim is to become energy self-sufficient by 2016.

As BC Energy Minister Richard Neufeld announced in February 2007: ‘This plan looks to all forms of clean, alternative energy. Bioenergy, geothermal energy, tidal, run-of-river, solar and wind power are all potential energy sources in a clean, renewable future. New technologies and new solutions will be encouraged to green the grid.’

‘We need to emphasise that small hydro is a green energy,’ says IPPBC’s Jack Carthy. ‘There is no storage involved. We maintain habitat, flows and flush streams to keep them alive. Most small hydro in BC is high head and low flow and so reduces impacts.’

As Carthy states there is still public opposition to small hydro development: it is not immune to the ‘not in my backyard’ syndrome. ‘There can be ignorance about small hydro,’ he explains. ‘We often go to public meetings for small projects and get asked how big is your dam and how deep is your reservoir when, in fact, it will just be a small weir and shallow headpond.’

‘The big challenge for small hydro is explaining exactly what the environmental impacts are,’ Mike Wise adds. ‘We do run-of-river on a relatively large scale in BC but we have a very large watershed. The environmental processes are rigorous and the same amount of attention is given to public consultation. However, working to develop a cluster of small projects can cause public alarm and the cumulative impacts of such projects need to be assessed thoroughly. We have to emphasise that it is green energy.’

Suspicious minds

A clearer picture of IPP’s role in small hydro development is also required. As Carthy explains, the government mandated that state utility BC Hydro was to focus on upgrading and expanding its numerous huge hydroelectric facilities, and invite the private sector to compete to build new small hydro projects.

‘The government said that BC Hydro has all the best sites in the province and can build/improve generation at its existing dam sites as this is much less risky,’ he says. ‘ Due to the high risk nature of green power projects, the government thought it would be more efficient to hand over the development and financing of small hydro to the IPPs.’

‘Because of this,’ Wise explains, ‘there is public suspicion about why the private sector is stepping in now. This government utility has looked after electricity and transmission very well for over 80 years so the question they are asking is: why change it now? The public versus private debate is a philosophical one and the undercurrent is that private companies are just in it to make money. But the public needs to understand the risks involved in these projects, particularly at the early stages of development. And even once a project is built, developers have nothing more than a licence to lease the crown land and water. It is up to the government if and when these are renewed. While it is anticipated the leases will be renewed when they expire, it is not a foregone conclusion.’

Transmission issues

There is also a critical need to upgrade the transmission network. ‘BC is a vast province with fantastic hydro sites, specifically around the coastal regions. But in such areas there is no bulk transmission,’ Wise says. ‘The government mandated that BCTC, the government transmission corporation, needs to think ahead about providing transmission here but the obvious catch is the economic viability of it all. It is much simpler to recoup costs with a few large storage dams rather than from many small intermittent renewable projects, like run-of-river, due to their differing degrees of firm power generation.’

Carthy agrees that transmission lines are an important piece of the puzzle. ‘In assessing future needs, the BCTC has been looking at what decisions need to be made to accommodate the development of small hydro. It is safe to assume that long term grid development is an essential requirement for this.’

Small blessings

Small hydro has secured itself an important role in British Columbia’s future energy plans. ‘Run-of-river projects offer a way to keep BC’s lights on without increasing greenhouse gas emissions,’ IPPBC president Steve Davis says. ‘BC is blessed with some of the best sites for low environmental impact, renewable generation in the world.’

Thirty-five run-of-river projects are currently in operation throughout the province, and 15 of these have been generating for more than ten years. Ten years from now we can confidently predict that small hydro will be playing an even bigger role in this vast Canadian province.

Jack Carthy is president of Sound Energy which is developing 15MW of small hydro.

Steve Davis is president of the IPPBC and has previously developed run-of-river and other green energy projects.

Mike Wise is the vice president, project development, at Syntaris Power Corporation. This newly formed company has applied for or holds 42 applications on rivers and creeks in British Columbia, representing more than 700MW of hydropower potential.

For more details about BC’s run-of-river projects or the Independent Power Producers Association of BC log on to

IWP&DC is hosting a conference on Small Hydro in Vancouver, BC, from 28-29 April 2009. For more information on the event please visit

Big facts on small hydro

Generally small hydro is classified as being under 50MW in British Columbia. Projects can be single generating plants or can be a cluster of plants which have a single connection to the grid as one unit. Multiple sites can be rated at 200MW or more. Over 50% of run-of-river hydro power water licence applications are for sites under 10MW. Less than 5% of the run-of-river licence applications are for more than 50MW.
Big players across Canada are taking up the small hydro challenge in BC. Those with the highest profile include: Plutonic Power Corporation; Cloudworks Energy; Enmax; Epcor; Brookfield; Canadian Hydro; Innergex.

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