Some ideas to help teach Evolution under BC’s new Grade 7 Science curriculum

I am going to take a break from writing about tame topics like pipelines and Site C to try my hand at a truly contentious topic: teaching evolution in the BC classroom.

As any Grade 7 teacher (or Grade 6 if you are doing A/B Year Schedules) knows, the new BC curriculum has made the topic of Evolution one of the “Big Ideas” for Grade 7 Science. Needless to say a lot of teachers have not had to teach the subject before and are at a loss how to address many of the challenges associated with this potentially hot-button topic; especially given the age of the children being taught. As a practicing scientist, I do a lot of science outreach in the schools and this year my wife asked me to come down to her school to help a couple of her colleagues who were looking for assistance teaching the subject to their students. In this post I would like to share some ideas I have gleaned on how to make this challenging topic understandable for elementary-aged kids and to avoid/side-step some of the landmines associated with teaching this topic.

The BC Curriculum Guide breaks down the topic into three areas:

  • changes in traits over time,
  • survival needs, and
  • natural selection.

The problem is that these are not intuitive divisions so I will give some simple ideas about important topics you may wish to cover.

What’s DNA? – let’s talk LEGO

In order to really understand evolution kids need a basic understanding of the concept of DNA. The problem is DNA is not an easy topic to teach or understand in Grade 7. When I was in high school we were taught the DNA was like a recipe book. Follow the recipe right and you make a living creature. Make a mistake following your recipe and you might have a delight or a disaster.

While that may fly for older kids, for younger kids I find that teaching DNA using LEGO is a better analogy. Think of DNA as the instruction booklets that come with a set of LEGO and the bricks as the proteins etc.. that make up a cell/body. Since my son is a LEGO fan I use a Super-Star Destroyer as an example. It comes with multiple little books and multiple little bags of parts. Using the books you assemble the parts. Because the project is large the chance exists for a mutation where one brick is put in the wrong spot. It might be 15 steps later before you discover that the error (a mutation) means another brick can’t be placed where it is supposed to go. Maybe your saucer unit won’t fit on the top and you have to move it. The change may be good or bad but it is a change. If you are lucky the change makes your LEGO creation cooler and not a disaster. It you are unlucky your Super-Star Destroyer loses its sensor array and the Millennium Falcon sneaks up behind it and blows it up.

Natural Selection – Mold and bacteria fight it out

Building on the idea of DNA we can talk about natural selection. To introduce the topic I like to talk molds and bacteria. I use molds because every kid has seen moldy bread and we all know about bacterial infections. I explain how mold and bacteria have been at war since forever (fighting over the surface of an old rotten orange as an example). There is only so much orange to go around and so the slow-growing mold really have to work hard to beat the fast-growing bacteria. I explain how one lucky penicillium had a mutation that caused it to make a protein called penicillin. This protein killed bacteria and because it did the lone penicillium was able to reproduce and win in its battle against the bacteria and take over the orange. Because of its success it was able to reproduce and now kitchens everywhere have penicillin producing mold ready to eat old, stale bread.

Given your time availability you can then segue over to the idea of antibiotic resistance as that goes back to the idea of survival needs and the need to adapt to survive.

Natural Selection – Survival of the fittest

This is a relatively easy topic. Most kids have seen documentaries where the pack of  wolves/lions stalk a herd of prey animals, identify the weakest member of the herd and attack it. In this scenario the weak are killed and the strong get away to have kids.

The other side of the coin can also be interesting for kids. Many of the kids at our school fish and crab and many have measured crabs and thrown back the little ones. I point out how that throwing back the little ones means that the little ones may actually be fitter in that case. Fitter doesn’t always have to be bigger just more likely to make it to the next generation.

Adaptive Radiation- Dump the finches let’s talk dogs

Having talked about natural selection we can talk about the idea of adaptive radiation: how organisms diversify from an ancestral species. Darwin has his eureka moment by looking at finches in the Galapagos and since that time science teachers have used that model to teach their students, to great boredom. Little brown birds are exciting to bird lovers like me but bore my kids to death. What my kids do love is dogs and dogs are a great way to introduce the topic of adaptive radiation.

I ask the students to identify the dogs they have and then go from there. In one class we had two boys, both with chihuahuas, and I asked if they imagine 100,000 years ago whether packs of chihuahuas roamed the plains taking down buffalo. We all agreed that this was likely not the case. I explained that when the first wolves decided that being friends with humans was a better way to get a meal than trying to eat humans they looked nothing like the dogs of today. Our ancestors bred dogs based on traits and we ended up with the breeds we have today. I then provided some typical traits we have bred for: protection – mastiffs; ability to catch vermin – terriers; ability to fetch downed wild fowl – retrievers etc.. This provides an easy to understand example of the essence of adaptive radiation. It also help because so many families have new mixed-breeds like the Labradoodle.

A Common Ancestor – No we didn’t evolve from apes, think more like long-lost cousins

Eventually every class has to deal with the common ancestor problem. Now we all know that we have a common ancestor because DNA is a pretty complicated way to keep track of your proteins and we all have DNA. But how do you explain that to kids. The best way I have found is to talk about families. I have brothers and they have kids. My kids therefore have cousins. My kids are not descended from their cousins they are descended from a common ancestor (their grandparents). Extrapolate backwards and we can infer that everything with DNA must radiate back to to a common ancestor. Moving downwards we come to recognize that we are all related but may not be descended from each other.

About that whole religion thing

The part of teaching Evolution that really had our teachers on edge was the fact we live in a very religious community with adherents of lots of faiths and the teachers really want to avoid stepping on religious toes. While teaching evolution will anger some parents it can be done in a way that reduces the likelihood of negative feedback. As a first step it is important to point out that everyone has their own way to look at the world and no one way is necessarily better than another.

Science is one way in which many people look at the world. As I scientist I was taught the scientific method. An individual sees something; makes a hypothesis; collects data against which to test the hypothesis; and revises or discards the hypothesis based on the information collected. The process is iterative. Do this enough times and the hypothesis becomes more robust (a Theory) and maybe given enough time it becomes a Law. Scientists being conservative will often call a well-tested theory a “Theory” long after it really should be called a Law. Such is the case with Evolution. Science has done enough work to demonstrate that evolution happens and we even understand, to a great extent, how it happens. Does this, therefore mean that evolution contradicts religious teaching? I don’t think it has to in the elementary classroom.

It is important to point out that at this current place in time, science doesn’t have all the answers. We still don’t have a handle on consciousness and while the basics of evolution are in place we are still ironing out how that first life went from connecting naturally occurring proteins to forming simple organic molecules to a functioning nucleus with self-replicating DNA. This provides a lot of wiggle-room for the elementary-level educator.

To help understand I have previously explained the topic this way. I was brought up in the Catholic tradition and in the Catholic tradition the original bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek with the Genesis story written in ancient Aramaic. Ancient Aramaic and ancient Hebrew were languages that had limited vocabularies and as such the Genesis story would be similarly limited in how it could explain the origins of humanity. As an example, neither ancient Aramaic nor ancient Hebrew have words for really big numbers (like a billion) and they certainly don’t have language to describe an accretion disk coalescing to form a planet. As such the language used in the Bible is necessarily simplified. A “day” in Genesis could mean anything from a solar day to a billion years and as such evolution doesn’t have to contradict your students’ religious heritage. Rather evolution can snuggle up in that gray zone that gets the lesson taught and avoids lots of angry letters/phone calls from parents.

Now I apologize in that I tried to fit a lot into a single post and so a lot of detail is missing. I gave two presentations this week and each took about an hour of which at least 20 mins was kids asking questions and teachers clarifying details that they (or their students) were not clear on. Given our school (we live in a very religious community) and the fact that last night was meet the teacher, I expected my wife to relay some parental feedback from the classes I visited, but I have yet to get any. That is a good thing in my books.

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

On motivated reasoning and the Site C Dam

As I have written numerous times, the intention of this blog is to advance the cause of evidence-based environmental decision-making. As a scientist my personal process involves collecting as much information as I can about an issue and then using that information to come to a decision. An important thing to understand is that this is an iterative process. As I get more, or differing, information I need to be ready to change/refine my opinion. That is, my opinions/decisions are driven by the data not the other way around.  As I have described at this blog, my opinion on the Site C Dam has been built this way. I have looked at the project and evaluated the pros and cons and have come to the conclusion that the positives outweigh the negatives.

Mine is not the only way to look at the world. One unfortunate way to look at the world is called motivated reasoning. In motivated reasoning you come to a conclusion based on emotions or preconceptions and then work to find information that conforms to your belief pattern while ignoring any evidence that contradicts your world view. On the Site C debate there are a lot of people who have come to their conclusions based on motivated reasoning. The project was planned and started under the auspices of the Liberal government and partisans who dislike the Liberals have decided that Site C must be bad because the Liberals like it. There are also the NIMBYs/BANANAs out there who simply don’t want anything built anywhere.

The motivated reasoning of the opponents of the Site C Dam makes it incredibly hard to have a reasoned discussion/debate with them. They have no firm underlying basis for their opposition to the dam so they use any shred of information that advances their cause and are just as quick to abandon a line or argument when the need arises. There is an old joke about corrupt politicians: they won’t stay bought. This is the case with many of the people I encounter in the Site C debate, they bring out an argument, have it thoroughly debunked and abandon it for a bit. As soon as they think it acceptable they then bring out the same argument again and act as if it was never addressed in the first place. It is like a game of whack-a-mole because just like in that game I knock down an argument and they resurrect it a few days later and demand that I address it again. Should I fail even once to respond they then jump on it as an admission that they are right and I am wrong. Want some examples? Let’s go through the greatest hits:

Site C is all about getting water for the US

I start with this one because it is literally the most ridiculous. The NAWAPA was abandoned in the 1960’s and just because Lyndon LaRouche, tried to resurrect the project in the 1980’s doesn’t make it a real plan. This project is deader than a Norwegian Blue.

The land that will be flooded by Site C is enough to feed 1 Million people

No, the area to be flooded by the Site C Dam could not feed 1 million people. This is a bizarre claim that runs contrary to agricultural research. The farmland to be flooded by the Site C Dam is somewhere between 1,600 hectares and 12,000 hectares. So how many people will that amount of land feed? As I have written previously according to food researchers:

The minimum amount of agricultural land necessary for sustainable food security, with a diversified diet similar to those of North America and Western Europe (hence including meat), is 0.5 of a hectare per person.

If you are only counting calories, then a really efficient farm (with year-round growing seasons) can provide the minimum calories (absent any food variety or critical minerals or spoilage or loss to insects etc.) to support 5-6 people per hectare. Unfortunately for the Peace River District, they don’t have a year-round growing season. While it is very rich land it has a relatively short growing season (about 4 months). So pressing the absolute limit and giving the activists the benefit of every doubt the 12,000 hectares they claim will be “flooded” could possibly feed 72,000 people with an absolute minimum vegetarian diet of grains and fruit. Using the mean numbers from agricultural science the 3,800 hectares of agricultural land being flooded could potentially feed 7,600 people. Using the numbers I hear the most, the 1,600 hectares of farmable land could feed 1,600 people with a standard western diet after losses for wastage, spoilage and pests. This gives us a potential range of 1,600 – 72,000 people that could theoretically be supported by the land to be flooded. Neither of those numbers are anywhere near one million. We are talking being off by orders of magnitude folks?

Flooding the land for Site C will put our food security at risk

According to research prepared for the Peace Regional District, in 2011 there were approximately 4.6 million hectares in British Columbia’s agricultural land reserve (ALR)  and 27% of BC’s ALR was in the Peace Regional District. Of that 4.6 million, in 2011, approximately 2.6 million hectares of land was being farmed in BC with 825,000 of that land being farmed being in the Peace District. According to the official numbers that means the Site C Dam will flood approximately 0.4% of the agricultural land in the Peace District or 0.2% of the agricultural land in BC. We currently have almost 2 million hectares of ALR that we aren’t even bothering to farm (including 426,000 in the Peace District) and the activists claim we will go hungry if we flood around 5,000 hectares of it in the Peace?

Site C is simply a run-of-the-river project.

This is a particularly bizarre claim coming from Robert McCullough and repeated endlessly by the Peace Valley Environment Association. The reason I find this claim to be bizarre is that these are the same people who argue that the reservoir is so large and damaging. The reservoir is expected to be over 100 km long and almost 500 m wide. The top 1.8 m is useable for electricity generation. That represents almost 100  million liters of water which is equivalent to approximately 40,000 Olympic swimming pools worth of water. What sort of run-of-river project has that much storage capacity? So while Site C’s reservoir is indeed 0.4% of the volume of the Williston Reservoir, the Williston Reservoir is one of the 10 biggest reservoirs on the planet. Certainly, the Site C dam takes advantage of the Williston Reservoir to allow it to produce more electricity than a similarly-sized dam elsewhere but that is a plus not a minus. The reservoir is of sufficient size that even in drought years BC Hydro expects it will be able to produce 4000+ GWH of power a year.

Renewables are/will be cheaper than Site C

The Deloitte report, BC Hydro and even the McCullough report all agree that at this time renewable are not cheaper than Site C. Both Deloitte and McCullough count on continuing cost decreases to eventually make those technologies price-comparable but both Deloitte and McCullough are careful not to include the costs of connections to the transmission grid to their numbers. The Site C budget includes a tremendous amount of money to connect to the grid but the activists never ask the renewable alternatives to include those costs into their equations. As I have previously noted once you account for transmission costs the renewable are still miles behind the price-point obtained for Site C.

This is a common thread in the “renewables will be cheaper” argument. They take the general case in other areas and then pretend that it will apply in the particular case of BC while completely ignoring the specifics that apply in BC. You can’t ignore the limitations imposed by British Columbia’s geography when trying to talk about renewable resources. Our coastal climate means solar only works in a few interior locations. Wind is found far from population centers and our geothermal is locked in hard rock formations in the mountains. All this  is ignored as the activists put the sunniest spin on the story while reassuring us that we can always rely on our American cousins if we need more energy in the future. The Clean Energy Act was intended to ensure we don’t need to depend on the US to keep us warm in winter. I think we should keep it that way.

BC Hydro is bad at forecasting

This is the favourite of the anti-Site C crowd. BC Hydro has consistently missed their forecast numbers therefore Site C will not be needed. Even the BCUC preliminary report said as much. What the activists forget to mention is what the BCUC actually says about the topic. The BCUC points out that BC Hydro has every reason to forecast conservatively  because our entire province depends on them for electricity. It they are going to err they should do so on the conservative side because the alternative (missing low) means brownouts and not having the power necessary to run our hospitals, schools and nursing homes.

Moreover, as I have pointed out previously, the future load forecasts were made prior to the signing of the Paris Agreement. This is the one place where I really don’t understand the BCUC preliminary report. Section 3(c) of the Terms of Reference could well be described as the Paris Agreement section since it asks the BCUC to look at factors since the 2016 demand numbers were made. The Paris Agreement is the biggest energy news since that July 2016 forecast was made. That the preliminary report completely omitted this feature is simply mind-boggling.

Conclusion

I welcome good discussion on the Site C file where we put the pros and cons on the table. The problem is when dealing with people, who as my mom used to put it, have made up their minds and don’t want to be confused with facts. When motivated individuals are willing to ignore the facts it is impossible to convince them of anything and this is the case with most of the activists who have been attacking me for the last several months. They aren’t interested in facts or arguments and they aren’t willing to actually present an argument that can be challenged with facts. Instead they will continue to play whack-a-mole and count on the fact that they have the numbers to completely drown out the few people who are willing to try and have reasonable discussions on the topic. That is why I didn’t go to the Vancouver BCUC meeting and am not going to the next one. I have made my case. The BCUC can listen to me, or not, but ultimately this will be a political decision. I can only hope that the folks in charge can filter out the noise so we can have an evidence-based decision on this file.

Author’s note:

Okay folks just too funny, this post by the Peace Valley folk was posted simultaneously with my blog post. It is literally a list of many of the fallacies I have repeatedly debunked at my blog.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Site C, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Are we getting a balanced story from the media on Site C

This morning I turned on my radio to listen to Jon McComb do a piece on the Site C dam with his special guest “international energy expert” Robert McCullough, the Peace Valley Landowner Association’s hired gun from Oregon. Now from the promo I knew that the piece was going to be problematic but nothing prepared me for what was to come. This interview represents a frustrating trend I have observed in the media, in the recent past, and so I have written this post to discuss this trend.

Let’s start with what happened before the interview. In the promo for the piece (not included in the podcast but at 37:30 in the audio vault) Mr. McComb made this incredible statement:

Coming up we are going to talk with an international energy expert who wonders why we are building 10 billion dollar dams when renewables are cheaper and more dependable, we will talk to Robert McCullough coming up

You heard that right Mr. McComb repeated the unsupportable claim that renewables were “more dependable” than power from a dam. Now I should have stopped listening then and there because that should have alerted me of what nonsense was to come. For those wondering the only thing dependable about wind and solar power is that they will not be available for the vast majority of the year. On the winter solstice, in Vancouver, there will be 8 hours 29 minutes of daylight. That is not daylight available for solar power but total light from sunrise to sunset. On that cold day a fixed solar panel will be lucky to get 3-4 hours of useful exposure. If it is cloudy the solar panel might generate at 20-30% of its capacity for those 4 hours. While technically one can depend on the sun not shining that is not the sort of dependability I want to power a pediatric ventilator in the neonatal intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital. Sorry kids no oxygen for you today it is cloudy and wet.

Prior to getting his guest on the air Jon argued that the project should have gone to the BCUC before it was originally approved. This is a constant refrain from the anti-Site C crew and betrays a misunderstanding of the BCUC’s mandate. The BCUC is tasked with regulating B.C.’s energy utilities and is responsible for getting the best value for money for BC consumers. This is their mandate. They are not allowed to look at other factors. In introducing the Clean Energy Act the government of the day acknowledged that we weren’t going to get the cheapest possible power from Site C because they understood that there is a feature more important than cheap power: climate change. That is why they called it the Clean Energy Act and not the “Cheap Energy Act”. We can all agree that if we ignore climate change then Site C is a waste of money. Re-open Burrard Thermal, build inexpensive natural gas power plants and we can have the cheapest power on the planet…and 50 years from now when YVR is a boat launch and Vancouver has skyscrapers sticking out of the ocean at least I will have a water view from my house in the hills in Langley. Let’s say this again. The BCUC is not mandated to consider climate change. That is why the Clean Energy Act excluded the BCUC.

From there it only got worse. Because of connection problems Mr. McCullough wasn’t immediately available so Jon free-styled it for a bit. He repeated Mr. McCullough’s talking points about the cost of Site C adding his own flourishes about the budget of the project. The thing Jon forgot to mention is that Mr. McCullough always emphasizes the total cost of the dam while conveniently ignoring the massive amount of energy that will be generated. If you consider both the numerator and the denominator in the equation you discover that while Site C will be expensive, the average cost of the electricity produced by Site C will be below the current cost for wind and solar.

This brings us to a constant refrain from Mr. McCullough: if renewables prices keep dropping then one day (not today and not tomorrow but someday) wind will be cheaper than hydro. The problem is that his model depends on unsustainable decreases in the cost of wind and solar energy. Unsustainable because the bulk of the cost for these facilities is no longer just the panels and the turbines. The rate limiting step includes the cost to buy, transport and install  the thousands of tonnes of concrete and rebar needed to hold the turbine in place and the kilometers of transmission lines needed to connect the facilities to the grid. This second cost is one Mr. McCullough stubbornly refuses to include in his calculations even though they are included in the costs of Site C. It is easy to argue that driving a car is cheaper than the bus if you qualify the statement by saying that the car costs don’t include gas, insurance or upkeep but that is not how the real world works. Site C includes a hefty price to connect to the grid. Mr. McCullough ignores that fact every time he discusses the cost of renewables and only includes the facility costs for the renewable facilities not the all-in costs.

Once Jon finally got Mr. McCullough on the line Mr. McCullough repeated his talking points first by introducing a straw man about what Dr. Jaccard had previously said about Site C and then going back to the availability and price of renewables (addressed above). He then talked about the what he called the zero-carbon options. [Author’s note: this is an error a lot of renewable supporters put out. Wind and solar aren’t zero-carbon options they are low-carbon options. Based on Deloitte’s report wind will generate more carbon per KWh than Site C under almost every scenario examined].

It took until 6:10 in the podcast for the most egregious statement. Mr. McCullough said that zero-carbon options were “a lot more dispatchable” than hydro. He qualified the statement by saying that he saw a train carrying wind turbines and that you could build turbines faster than hydro but that is not the point. As an energy expert Mr. McCullough must know what dispatchability means in energy conversations so to make that statement can represent nothing less than a deliberate attempt to muddy the conversation. I won’t call it unethical because he qualified the statement but it came as close to the boundary of bad ethics as is possible without crossing the line. As an analogy imagine a police officer testifying in court and saying “I saw the vehicle speeding” only to later qualify the statement to say that the driver was not actually exceeding the speed limit but just “speeding” along on the road at a healthy clip but slower than the speed limit. That is the level of language abuse in Mr. McCullough’s statement. Sure speeding can be used a number of ways but when a police officer uses the term in court it has an expected meaning. The same is true with the term dispatchability for “energy experts”.

Mr. McCullough then talked about the fact that the Site C Dam has a smaller reservoir than the Williston Reservoir and so therefore the Site C was “not a good storage dam“. This is a constant refrain from Mr. McCullough who has previously said that Site C was a run-of-the-river project. This is simply hogwash. Site C’s reservoir is indeed 0.4% of the volume of the Williston Reservoir but the Williston Reservoir is one of the 10 biggest reservoirs on the planet that doesn’t make every smaller dam on the planet a run-of-the-river project. Certainly, the Site C dam takes advantage of the Williston Reservoir to allow it to produce more electricity than a similarly-sized dam elsewhere but that is a plus not a minus. The reservoir is of sufficient size that even in drought years BC Hydro expects it will be able to produce 4000+ GWH of power a year.

Mr. McCullough then talked about how Washington and Oregon have 10 times more wind  installed than BC therefore we should be able to install wind easily. McCullough likes the claim “that there is nothing complicated about implementing wind” and he must know that the nature of our geography does not make installing wind turbines easy. Unlike Washington and Oregon, which have a long, well-populated coastlines exposed to the steady winds from the Pacific Ocean, the population centers of BC are protected from those winds. Our major wind resources are along the exposed Pacific Coast (the west coast of Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and the North Coast) and in the Peace District along ridge-lines in the foothills.

Those trains that McCullough keeps reporting having seen don’t run to those locations. If you want to build a wind turbine on a ridge line in the Peace you can take the train part-way but then you have to put it on a road, which ends far from the ridge line. To get the supplies to the ridge line you need to either build a road or carry them up there by helicopter. Moreover, a wind turbine isn’t simply stuck on a hill, it is planted there using massive amounts of concrete and rebar. All those heavy materials have to be moved up that mountainside as well. Finally the turbine is only of use if it is connected to the transmission system. That means building transmission lines up and over the mountains. This is the entire point of my previous post about LCOE. Mr. McCullough looks at facilities in Washington and Oregon and pretends that we can build at a similar cost in the Peace. This is simply wrong.

This is a common thread in McCullough’s presentations. He takes the general case in other areas and then pretends that it will apply in the particular case of BC while completely ignoring the specifics that apply in BC. You can’t ignore the limitations imposed by British Columbia’s geography when trying to talk about renewable resources. Our coastal climate means solar only works in a few interior locations. Wind is found far from population centers and our geothermal is locked in hard rock formations in the mountains. All this he ignores as he puts the sunniest light on the story while reassuring us that we can always rely on our American cousins if we need more energy in the future. The Clean Energy Act was intended to ensure we don’t need to depend on the US to keep us warm in winter. I think we should keep it that way.

As a regular listener to CKNW I cannot express how disappointed I have been about the way this project has been reported. Either consciously or unconsciously reporters are not asking the obvious questions and are credulously repeating demonstrably wrong anti-Site C talking points. A host can be excused for quoting misinformation in context but to repeat that misinformation repeatedly is very problematic. No reputable energy expert has every said that wind energy is more dependable than hydro. This is not a matter for debate. Wind is notoriously variable while water behind a dam is completely predictable. Shortages of water in reservoirs due to drought can be forecasted weeks in advance while changes in wind are so common that there are any number of common expressions about change being in the wind. For evidence-based environmental decision-making to have a chance misinformation has to be corrected and on topics of public interest we often rely on the fourth estate to call out bad information before it become endemic. In BC our fourth estate is failing in this task and this program is simply one example of that happening.

Author’s note:

It has been pointed out to me that my first version of this post was overly hard on the CKNW staff. That was not intended to be the case and so I have edited the piece to be less inflammatory and to stick to my point in a more generic way using this interview simply as one example of a frustrating trend.

 

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, General Politics, Site C | 3 Comments

On my Frustration with anti-Site C Activism

By now my opinion on Site C is well known. Having looked at the pros and cons of the project I feel that the pros outweigh the cons and given my desire to see Canada meet our Paris-Agreement goals I see Site C as the most cost-effective and least environmentally damaging way to make that happen. I did not come to this position lightly. I have written about renewable energy options since starting this blog in 2014 and my blog post from 2015 Starting a Dialogue – Can we really get to a “fossil fuel-free BC first investigated what it would take for BC to go fossil fuel-free. Shortly after the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016 I wrote a follow-up On Pragmatic Environmentalism, the Paris Agreement and where do we go from here? detailing our future energy needs in a post-Paris BC. In the time since I first wrote on this topic many have, through their own paths, come to the same conclusions as me. Most recently SFU  Energy Sustainability Economist Dr. Mark Jaccard wrote an article that pretty much mirrors what I have written. This reassures me that I am not an outlier, but rather in very good company.

I have taken tremendous flack for my stand on this topic. One political operative broadcast my work phone number to his followers, likely to try and get me fired or to pressure me into not discussing Site C. That individual, as well as a well-known internet “journalist”, have also gone out of their way to impugn my name and that of my employer in the hopes of getting me to stop blogging about Site C. They have repeatedly claimed that I am getting paid to blog about Site C because my employer (a large engineering firm) does some work for the government.

Anyone who knows me, knows my work has nothing to do with Site C and to the best of my knowledge my employer has not worked for BC Hydro. Now I might be wrong, we might have worked on a bridge design or something like that, but that has never been relayed to me. I’m not in the division that does work with the government except when I do contract work refereeing technical reports on contaminated sites. The reason my employer allows me to blog on Site C is because it is one file upon which I have no conflicts of interest. I have committed to my employer that I will not blog on topics where we do work and I enjoy my job too much to put my employment at risk for my hobby. I do not blog on company time, but thanks to a flexible work schedule can go off the books pretty much any time I want to and as the need requires.

By now you are probably asking the same question my wife keeps asking: why bother blogging about a topic that gives you nothing but grief. Well the answer is that I care deeply about ensuring we make good decisions for my kids’ futures. I care deeply in the concept of evidence-based environmental decision-making and frankly I care because I hate the idea that a decision of this importance is being influenced by a tsunami of misinformation being spewed by the opponents of the dam. Honestly, these folks care only about killing the dam and are apparently willing to do whatever it takes to advance their cause. They represent everything that is wrong about environmental decision-making in BC these days. Consider some examples?

Let’s start with a conspiracy theorist who appears hell-bent on proving that Site C is actually part of a cold-war plan to re-direct Canada’s vital inland waters to feed America’s voracious appetite for fresh water. The plan, ironically enough created by my employer back in the early 1960’s, was also shelved in the 1960’s when it was realized that it would require hundreds of dams, thousands of kilometers of trenching through the Rocky Mountains and trillions of dollars of expense. Apparently Lyndon LaRouche, that bastion of sanity, tried to resurrect the project in the 1980’s and that is enough for the conspiracy theorists out there to claim that I am being paid to promote Site C.

From the same source we get another completely ridiculous argument that the area to be flooded by Site C could feed a 1 million people. I address this argument in a blog post but to summarize the author took a vegetable study produced by BC Hydro for the original Site C proposal. That report said the area to be flooded, if farmed intensely, could provide vegetables for 266,000 people as part of a balanced diet. She then extrapolated assuming that farmers were going to carry out industrial-scale agriculture on islands in the middle of the river and on sloped riverbanks to announce that the entire area to be flooded could produce enough to feed 1 million people vegetables as part of a balanced diet. Since that claim wasn’t wacky enough she has since expanded her original claim to to one where the same land would feed 1 million people with all the calories for their entire diet. I have no clue how she made that last leap but it is not defensible in any form and as I present in my blog post runs contrary to a generation of agricultural research. That hasn’t stopped the opponents of Site C from repeating the claim endlessly.

As for other examples let’s look at Dr. Harry Swain who I debated on the radio on this topic. During our debate after professing strong interest in the field of climate change he then suggested that we shouldn’t take any action to fight climate change until there was

large agreement and commitment to a multi-multi hundred billion dollar transformation of the world economy.

As someone who professed to care about climate change he appeared completely unaware that the Paris Agreement represented exactly such an agreement. When reminded of the Paris Agreement he ended his presentation with the line about climate change

I think it is the most serious thing facing the world and no would be happier than me if there were some teeth and dollars and genuine multi-national commitment behind the Paris Accord, so far there isn’t and against the history of 20-40 years of disappointing government action I would like to wait and see somebody put their money where their mouth is.

The problem is that Canada and much of the world is doing exactly that on this file. The Clean Energy Act (CEA) was the provincial government putting their money where their mouth is and Dr. Swain completely ignores that fact while suggesting we should sit on our hands and let other countries do the work. In doing so he also ignores that Alberta, Washington and California are also putting their money where their mouth is. BC once led the field on climate change but now we are part of a global movement to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and to suggest that BC should stop just as the rest of the world is passing us seems problematic from my perspective.

Talking about the CEA brings us to the Peace Valley Landowner Association (PVLA) and their imported expert Robert McCullough who presented a submission to the BCUC. Now the PVLA was very proud of Mr. McCullough and his work. Proud enough to have him do a press conference to present his results. The problem is McCullough appears not to understand what the CEA says and what it means. Section 1 of the CEA defines “clean or renewable resource” to include “hydro” thus by definition under the CEA, Site C is a clean or renewable resource and thus is included under Section 2(c) of the CEA [the 93% clean or renewable resource requirement]. In his submission McCullough’s argues (on page 45) that Site C would be considered “dirty” under the CEA. This is demonstrably and categorically wrong and has no merit. He further concludes that BC can only generate 500 GHW from Site C because it is “dirty”. That is, of course, completely wrong and anyone who had bothered to read the CEA would know this. This begs the question, did he bother to read the Act he keeps purporting to cite?

In his report McCullough relies heavily on Lazard’s analysis of levelized cost of energy (LCOE). The problem with Lazard’s LCOE is that it is consistently lower than the other bodies that evaluate this value, including the IPCC.  Moreover, there are strong critiques of the LCOE approach which is heavily biased by factors not applicable in British Columbia. Our geography and the location of our wind, geothermal and solar resources are not reflected in Lazard’s numbers. As an example, our potential wind resource is primarily located far away from existing infrastructure (highways or rail lines) and connections to provincial transmission systems. BC Hydro considered these additional costs in their Electricity Supply Options research and got very different numbers than McCullough. When confronted by generic Lazard numbers and site-specific BC analyses, I am wont to trust the figures that acknowledge local or site-specific considerations. To give an example, imagine you were given two costs estimates

One to build a wind turbine near the highway in Southern California using non-union labour and

The second to build a wind turbine 20 km from the nearest roadway on a ridge line in the Peace District.

McCullough’s analysis imagines that both estimates would generate exactly the same price estimate. I don’t know about you but I find that very troubling. By relying on Lazard LCOE calculations to estimate the future cost of renewables in BC McCullough transposes US costs on BC geographies. This is why BC Hydro used Canadian experts familiar with BC conditions to supply costs in their Electricity Supply Options report. Personally, I think I will trust the Canadian cost estimates to those provided by an American consultant.

One of McCullough’s biggest arguments against Site C is that the Northwest Power Pool has a reserve margin that can be used to address any electricity shortage in BC. As I have pointed out previously much of that margin depends on access to natural gas generation in the Plains States and ignores California’s plan to mothball its nuclear generation capacity or Alberta’s plan to mothball coal. The reason the Clean Energy Act requires British Columbia be energy independent is because we cannot control how other jurisdictions decide to fight climate change. McCullough argues that BC should become utterly dependent on the goodwill of other jurisdictions to supply us with their surplus power. Expecting other jurisdictions to have surplus power in a post-Paris Agreement world is a risk he (as an American) may be willing to take because he will never have to pay out if the risk goes bad. The BC government looked at that risk and decided that keeping BC self-sufficient in energy was a good idea. I agreed with them when they enacted the CEA and I agree with that premise now.

You can see my frustration on this file. The opponents of Site C are literally making things up. They promote scientifically impossible concepts. They ignore years of work on the renewable energy file in BC and when they can’t find a local expert to say what they want to hear they import outsiders who appear unaware of what our legislation actually says while peddling generic US numbers when more precise Canadian numbers are available for everyone to see. Evidence-based environmental decision-making relies on individuals being willing to stand up for the data. I will continue to do this even as those who disagree with me choose to do otherwise. For me to do any less is simply not going to happen.

 

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Site C, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Will there be a demand for Site C power? Delving into BC Hydro demand statistics

As I noted in my previous post, I sent in my submission to the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) Site C Dam Inquiry. As a matter of personal interest, I have been keeping abreast of the other submissions. A number have been interesting; several are essentially useless; and two even earned their own DeSmogCanada blog postings. Specifically, former BC Hydro CEO Mark Eliesen’s and former Premier Mike Harcourt’s submissions. Mr. Harcourt’s submission also had the benefit of appearing as an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun. What I have found interesting about many of the submissions I have read is that they make arguments that are difficult to either support or refute with readily available data. I blame this on BC Hydro which has not seen fit to provide the data necessary to facilitate reasonable policy discussions. To satisfy my curiosity I  went to the BC Hydro Annual Reports page; downloaded the online past annual reports and compiled a spreadsheet of the data produced by the organization since 2002. This blog post will summarize some of the findings (all data are from the applicable Annual Reports unless otherwise cited).

Needless to say the information of note was typically not very easy to find. But hiding deep in the appendices were the financial operations statistics tables which break out the supply/demand situation in BC. What I found provides a far more complex and interesting picture than has been suggested by the people fighting against the Site C Dam and should really inform any reasonable evidence-based, decision-making process.

There first thing I must say about the BC Hydro statistics is that the data are very noisy. That is tech-speak for the fact that the data have a lot of year-over-year variability and trying to find a signal in all that noise can be challenging. Just look at how domestic electricity demand has varied over the time-frame investigated:

Dometic no exports

Total domestic demand showed a steady increase until the 2008 market crash. Following the market crash the economy contracted and this was visible in an observable decline in electricity demand. Remember BC Hydro statistics are not calendar years but rather financial years so post-crash impacts were not fully observable until the 2009-2010 financial year. Following the crash the economy started to recover and total demand has varied within a reasonably tight range since about 2012. When you strip out the Industrial users the trends in the data become a bit clearer.

Domestic and commercial

Light Industrial and Commercial use rose steadily to 2008, dropped a bit during the recession and has been generally increasing as we have dug ourselves out of the hole created by the recession. At first glance Light Industrial and Commercial demand appear to mirror provincial gross domestic product quite nicely (source).

GDP

Residential use, meanwhile, has had a different pattern. A lot of this has to do with how we use electricity in BC. Natural gas is still the primary means of heating homes and hot water for residential users but more-and-more households use electricity for heating and cooking. This means that residential use will be higher in years with cold winters (2012) and sink in years with warm winter (2015). The critical consideration for any discussion in the future, therefore,would be the number of residential accounts:

number of residential customers

and the average annual annual consumption per residential customer.

Average annual residential use

Looking at the data we can see that population is growing steadily while per customer demand decreased for a while but appears to have bottomed out. This might not sound like much but this is a big accomplishment. A household in 2017 has far more electrical gadgets than a similar household in 2000. Thanks to programs like PowerSmart, and Energy Star we have been saving energy on lighting and large appliances but thanks to the folks at Apple, Nintendo, Sony and Samsung we are using more electricity on phones, computers, large-screen televisions and gaming units. Ultimately, the whole thing has been a wash. If the bottoming out of the efficiency curve continues then residential demand will be expected to increase pretty much in lock-step with population.

So the question must be asked, why has overall demand appeared steady during the recovery and what does this mean for future demand? Well to answer that question we have to look at the breakdown of who is using the electricity in BC:

energy use by sub-group

As the graph shows the Light Industrial/Commercial and Residential sectors have shown steady growth which has been masked by the steady decline in Large Industrial users. As discussed Light Industrial/Commercial demand seems to reflect the overall economy. It increases with in a growing economy, it decreases in a recession and is stagnant in a stagnant economy.

The interesting thing is the divergence of Large Industrial and Residential use. In 2000-2001 Large Industrial users represented 34% of the BC Hydro’s domestic sales (corrected to exclude exports). The proportion dropped to 26% in 2016-2017. Residential users represented 31% of domestic sales in 2000-2001 and 36% 2016-2017. Residential demand is replacing Large Industrial demand to become a dominant driver in energy demand in BC. This trend can only increase as communities like the City of Vancouver move off natural gas and onto electricity for heating, cooking and hot water. What this graph makes clear is absent a huge jump in the mining/forestry sectors, the driving force in our future energy demand is going to be based on our population statistics; and that any Large Industrial development will be on top of the population-based demand increases.

Having looked at all the data let’s return to the topic of this post: future demand for use in policy discussions. Well the first thing this data-dive demonstrates is that you can make a number of arguments depending on what data you choose to include and which start date you choose for your analysis. Reading Mr. Harcourt’s submission the date range chosen becomes very interesting. While using a 10-year interval sounds pretty reasonable, in light of what we know about the last 10 years it becomes very problematic.  By choosing 10 years Mr. Harcourt places his start date at the height of the market before the 2008 crash. Comparing only 2008 to 2017 shows a relatively steady energy demand picture but it does so by ignoring the effects of the crash and the post-crash recovery. Also by looking only at total demand the decline in Large Industrial masks the steady increase in Residential demand caused by our steadily increasing population. Moreover, the recovery of our economy, that has been evidenced particularly in the last 6 months or so, indicates likely continued growth in the Light Industrial/Commercial demand.

Anyone familiar with demographic trends in BC would look at the data above and conclude that electricity demand is going to go up in the near future. A re-building economy driving up Light Industrial/Commercial demand and population increases driving up Residential demand can only mean increasing overall demand. This pretty much shreds Mr. Harcourt and Mr. Eliesen’s arguments. The flat demand discussed in the various other submissions simply represents strategic (or unfortunate) use of the historical data. As the mutual fund people always say “past performance should not be viewed as an indicator of future results”.

The data set looked at in its entirety, and in combination with the economic and demographic projections for BC, makes it clear that demand for electricity in BC is going to go up. Moreover, as I have pointed out many times (including in my BCUC Submission) the alternatives to Site C are all either more expensive (solar, wind and geothermal), speculative (i.e. dependent on technologies not currently available), or non-existent (i.e. cheap imports from outside BC). There is a reason I have reluctantly thrown my support behind the Site C project. Because I recognize that as bad as the project may be, in my opinion it is undoubtedly better than what we will see absent Site C.

 

Author’s Note:

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that my submission to the BCUC actually I addresses (and in my personal opinion shreds) Mr Eliesen’s argument about “inventing customers” in Alberta and “inventing international demand”. As my submission details, those markets will clearly exist based on Alberta’s, Washington’s and California’s various efforts to fight climate change.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Site C, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

My Submission to the BCUC Site C Inquiry

Sirs/Mesdames,

RE: Submission to the BC Utilities Commission Site C Inquiry

In the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) terms of reference for the Site C Inquiry (Inquiry) consideration is made to the topic of expected peak capacity demand and energy demand with respect to the Site C Dam. Specifically, in the terms of reference for this Inquiry the BCUC was required to:

use the forecast of peak capacity demand and energy demand submitted in July 2016 as part of the authority’s Revenue Requirements Application, and must require the authority to report on

  1. developments since that forecast was prepared that will impact demand in the short, medium and longer terms, and
  2. other factors that could reasonably be expected to influence demand from the expected case towards the high or low load case.

 

The research and analysis that formed the basis of the July 28, 2016 Fiscal 2017 to Fiscal 2019 Revenue Requirements Application was completed prior to the Paris Agreement1 coming into force and a search of the document demonstrates that Canada’s commitments under the Paris Agreement were not considered in the forecasts presented. It is my opinion that any review of future energy demand in BC that ignores our commitments under the Paris Agreement would be incomplete. As such, I present the following information for your consideration.

Under the Paris Agreement Canada agreed to drop our greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 20302. BC currently meets most of our electrical energy needs using large-reservoir hydro but most of our energy needs are being met using fossil fuels. As a nation Canada has pledged to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. This can only be accomplished by substantially increasing our supply of electricity. To do so we will need to develop alternative low-carbon energy supplies. Given our future energy needs we cannot ignore readily available, low-carbon energy sources like the Site C project.

Depending on your reference, BC’s total energy consumption, inclusive of the energy required to create secondary electricity, was approximately:

  • 1,142 PJ in 20003
  • 1,264 PJ in 20094
  • and/or 1,070 PJ in 20105

I’m providing multiple numbers because, frankly, I don’t know which one to trust. For the purposes of this discussion I am going to rely on the median, the Globe Foundation number, of around 1,142 PJ of energy a year. This translates to approximately 317,500 GWh of energy. According to BC Hydro, in 20126 BC Hydro’s total energy requirements were 57,083 GWh. This means that BC Hydro supplied less than 18% of the total energy used in BC and that renewable electricity component represents approximately 17% of our yearly energy needs. That leaves over 82% of our provincial energy usage being derived from sources other than BC Hydro. Of that 82% about 33% (approximately 380 PJ) was supplied via fossil fuels (excluding natural gas); about 26% (approximately 300 PJ) was supplied via natural gas; about 20% (approximately 225 PJ) was supplied via burning of waste biomass in industrial facilities; and the remaining was supplied via coal and coke (mostly for use in cement plants)7.

Looking at the numbers above, it becomes clear that cutting our emissions to achieve our pledge under the Paris Agreement will mean reducing the percentage of fossil fuels from our energy mix and replacing that energy with low-greenhouse gas electricity, like the kind that will be produced by the Site C Dam. Consider that the Site C Dam, once completed, is expected to generate 5,100 GWh8 of electricity. To replace the energy currently provided by gasoline and diesel fuels only, we would need to find the energy equivalent to almost 15 Site C dams. Admittedly using the efficiency gains associated with the use of electric vehicles in transportation could bring that number down to 6-9 Site C Dam equivalents (depending on your choice of conversion factors).

Remember that only considers liquid fuels. For a 100% fossil fuel-free B.C., we would also need to replace the natural gas used mostly for industrial purposes and for home and water heating. That would represent another 16 Site C dam equivalents. Consider the City of Vancouver’s Zero Emissions Building Plan which calls for the elimination of natural gas in housing uses. The move from natural gas to electricity for housing uses would significantly drive up electricity demand.

Any knowledgeable observer looking at these numbers would recognize that British Columbia is nowhere near ready to help Canada meet our Paris Agreement commitments. Given our current electrical supply we are approximately 20-25 Site C Dam equivalents away from a goal of a fossil fuel BC and still many Site C Dam equivalents away from achieving our Paris Agreement commitments. What is abundantly clear, however, is that we will need a lot of fossil fuel-free electricity in the very near future if we are to do our part to arrest global climate change. As the numbers clearly show, the Site C Dam project barely gets us started on the road to our fossil fuel-free future but at least it will help move us in the right direction.

Having established that we need a lot of power, the question that must be asked is how do we go about generating that power? Happily, BC Hydro evaluated various energy generation and storage technologies9 including establishing approximate costs for the various options. BC Hydro’s, 2014-2015 power generation options update10 helps clarify the costs of alternatives and makes it clear that, on a cost basis, the Site C Dam represents a cost-efficient means to achieve our future energy needs.

Some have argued that energy imports will allow BC to achieve our electricity needs in the absence of Site C. Well, in 2007 as part of its Energy Plan11 (2007 EP) and in the subsequent Climate Action Plan12 (CAP) our Provincial Government committed us to a path of electricity self-sufficiency. As described in these plans, electricity self-sufficiency was deemed a major priority. The reason for this was self-evident to the authors of those plans: in a world where fighting climate change becomes a defining political objective, ensuring that we have a steady domestic supply of low-carbon electricity is exactly the reason why we have a government-owned utility. The two plans foresaw a future where we needed to use more electricity for transportation and residential uses and wanted to ensure that we had the domestic capacity to meet those needs. Recognizing that the government of the day couldn’t pay for it all the CAP foresaw that we would need to bring in external partners to meet our future electricity needs. It also acknowledged that paying a bit more to provide flexibility of supply and energy security represents sound governmental policy and not a mistake.

Many disagree with that analysis, as “internationally respected economist Robert MuCullough”13 puts it:

In 2013, B.C. Hydro estimated that Site C would cost 2.5 times then current annual market prices. As natural gas and renewable prices have continued to decline, Site C now costs 3.3 times current annual market rates.

Put another way, British Columbia rate payers could save $4.1 billion simply by buying the same amount of power from the United States — even after writing off the $1.75 billion already spent.

Now let’s look at that approach in light of current political/economic conditions. On January 1, 2017, the Province of Alberta initiated its Climate Leadership Plan14. As part of that plan Alberta committed to ending coal pollution15. This requires that Alberta phase out its coal power plants. On January 1, 2017 coal represented 41% of Alberta’s installed electricity generation capacity16. I’m guessing that if Alberta is in the process of shuttering 41% of its generation capacity, it will not have a lot of inexpensive electricity to export.

As for Washington State, they are in the process of implementing a carbon pricing mechanism while looking to increase their zero emission vehicle fleet to 30%17 and simultaneously eliminating the use of electrical power supplied by coal18. While Washington has been a net exporter of electricity19, the vast majority of that has been to California which imported 805 trillion BTUs of electricity in 201520 (latest data available). This would be the same California that is closing its last nuclear plant21 while projecting increases in electricity prices22. California is also starting to price carbon23 and currently generates 6386 GWh24 of electricity from nuclear (closing) and natural gas-fired plants (whose carbon is being priced). What this means is that electricity prices are not going down in California anytime soon.

So to our east they are foreseeing a crunch on electricity while to our south Washington should just barely be able to supply its own market. To the south of Washington California is going to be desperately searching for massive amounts electricity. These are not the conditions where we, as British Columbians, want to go hat-in-hand looking for cheap electricity to import. Once BC starts acting on our climate change commitments we are going to need a lot of electricity. Moreover, that electricity is not going to be cheap25 and irrespective of what the activists keep claiming conservation and efficiency improvements will not address this energy shortfall26. As for the Columbia River entitlement, that may help a bit, but as I have demonstrated even including that power we will come nowhere close to meeting our increased demands27.

To conclude I can’t seem to say this enough. The Site C dam is not a perfect project. It has real flaws but I can’t help but hearken back to what Dr. Andrew Weaver, climate scientist, said about the project28:

There are environmental consequences, yes, but there are environmental consequences for everything we do and we have to stop using the atmosphere as an unregulated dumping ground.

To my understanding, BC’s 2007 Energy Plan was predicated on a scenario where fighting climate change meant that Alberta and Washington had no electricity to export. Now with Alberta closing its coal plants we are half-way there. Any post-Paris Agreement Energy Plan must assume that BC will not be importing electricity. To assume otherwise will leave us incredibly vulnerable to external forces. We already pay above market rates for our gasoline. Do we want to depend on the US for our electricity as well?

My answer to this question is no. I think that the 2007 Energy Plan and the Climate Action Plan represented solid evidence-based policy. The two plans acknowledged the risks and admitted that addressing those risks would be a bit more expensive than simply pretending that those risks don’t exist. It is good government policy to ensure that, when the time comes, BC has the energy it will need to meets its commitments to its populace. I do not think we can rely on the kindness of our neighbours because in the coming years it is likely the neighbours won’t have any excess energy to share.

Thank-you for your time on this matter.

Blair King, Ph.D., R.P.Bio., P.Chem.

References

1 – http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09.pdf

2- http://www4.unfccc.int/submissions/INDC/Published%20Documents/Canada/1/INDC%20-%20Canada%20-%20English.pdf

3 – http://globe.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/globe_endlessenreport.pdf

4-http://www2.cieedac.sfu.ca/media/publications/BC_2011_report__09_data__final.pdf

5 – http://pics.uvic.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/Energy_Data_Report_2010_1.pdf

6-(https://www.bchydro.com/content/dam/BCHydro/customer-portal/documents/corporate/regulatory-planning-documents/integrated-resource-plans/current-plan/2012-electric-load-forecast-report.pdf)

7-http://globe.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/globe_endlessenreport.pdf

8- https://www.bchydro.com/energy-in-bc/projects/site_c.html

9 – https://www.bchydro.com/energy-in-bc/meeting_demand_growth/generation-options.html

10- https://www.bchydro.com/energy-in-bc/meeting_demand_growth/generation-options/updates.html

11-https://www.bchydro.com/content/dam/hydro/medialib/internet/documents/info/pdf/2008_ltap_appendix_b1.pdf

12-http://www.gov.bc.ca/premier/attachments/climate_action_plan.pdf

13-https://in-sights.ca/2017/06/18/something-rotten-with-the-state-of-bc-hydro/

14-https://www.alberta.ca/climate-leadership.aspx

15-https://www.alberta.ca/climate-coal-electricity.aspx

16-http://www.energy.gov.ab.ca/Electricity/681.asp

17-http://www.governor.wa.gov/issues/issues/energy-environment

18-http://www.governor.wa.gov/news-media/gov-inslee-announces-executive-action-reduce-carbon-pollution-and-promote-clean-energy

19-https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=WA

20-https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=CA

21-http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-diablo-canyon-nuclear-20160621-snap-story.html

22-https://eec.ucdavis.edu/files/02-06-2014-The-Future-of-Electricity-Prices-in-California-Final-Draft-1.pdf

23-https://www.forbes.com/sites/energyinnovation/2017/02/08/carbon-prices-rise-in-californias-cap-and-trade-program-as-legal-certainty-grows/#485b6bef2355

24-https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=CA#tabs-4

25-https://achemistinlangley.wordpress.com/2017/06/10/on-the-costs-of-fighting-climate-change-and-the-site-c-dam/

26-https://achemistinlangley.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/no-efficiency-and-conservation-cannot-replace-the-electricity-supplied-by-the-site-c-dam/

27-https://achemistinlangley.wordpress.com/2016/01/03/a-non-partisan-look-at-british-columbias-energy-picture-in-light-of-the-paris-agreement/

28-https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/powering-the-future/article1152789/?page=3

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Site C, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

What anti-Site C activists won’t tell you about energy efficiency

In a previous post I discussed why energy efficiency was not going to be the cheap and easy way to address BC’s electricity needs. Well a number of activists have challenged me on that topic. They argue that we have only scratched the surface on the road to energy efficiency and that more can be accomplished. My response to them is yes, more efficiency is possible, but at a cost of more societal inequality and higher energy costs. To put it another way, if your argument against Site C is that shelving the project will save you money on your energy bill then you are barking up the wrong tree. In this post I will expand on that message.

As I have previously written, in the last 25 years British Columbians have done a great job of reducing our per capita energy use. Through the Power Smart program BC Hydro has managed to keep our energy demand steady while our population grew. They did this by encouraging us to replace, or get rid of, inefficient appliances (the Energy Star program); being Energy Wise at home and at work; and by encouraging electricity conservation by doing things like getting rid of incandescent lights.

Another way we have reduced our electricity use has been by relying on natural gas for things like heat and hot water. I remember when they brought natural gas to Victoria. While it was inconvenient (as they installed all the pipelines and caused us to buy new appliances) it was great because our new natural gas water heater and furnace dropped our hydro bills precipitously. We paid off those appliances before we knew it because gas was so much cheaper than hydro.

Well one of the steps in achieving our Paris Agreement goals is getting us off natural gas and back to using electricity to heat our homes, cook our meals and heat our hot water. The drive to build highly efficient passive homes will certainly reduce the total amount of energy needed to heat our homes but it does nothing about cooking food or heating water. That will be done using electricity which will drive up demand for electricity just as we come to grips with the problem that the water running through BC Hydro’s dams can only supply a fixed amount of electricity at any given time. As our population continues to grow either we will need to find more supply (like building Site C) or we will need to reduce our maximum usage.

The activists argue that we can use renewables to supply that electricity. I agree but point out some limitations with that approach. The first is that given solar insolation values, much of BC is restricted on how much energy can be generated by solar panels. Certainly, solar can serve a useful purpose in the interior (in summer) but on the coast (and during winter) solar panels will often supply little or no electricity and solar panels are entirely useless in the dark. This brings us to the current dilemma in the renewable energy field “the duck curve”.

For those of you not familiar with the term “the duck curve” is a way of describing the supply/demand challenges associated with renewable-heavy electricity systems over the course of the day (good explainer here). The problem is that the sun and wind don’t generally supply power when people need it the most. Most solar electricity is generated in the heat of the day when families are at work or school and household use is at its minimum. Then, just when the sun goes down, everyone goes home and power demand spikes. This happens when families get home after work/school and turn on the air conditioners/heaters; set their ovens to cook dinner; give their kids their evening baths before bed-time; and turn on their family electronics. All this household use drives up demand right when the supply of renewable energy is at its lowest (in the early evening). This makes a shape of the demand curve go upward in a way that look a lot like the neck of a duck. This demand is met by our electrical system by ramping up peaker power plants to cover the spike in demand. Unfortunately if you don’t have any spare capacity lying around things can get very tricky very quickly.

In a world without natural gas or nuclear peaker plants the duck curve will need to be addressed  by either “flattening the duck” (by reducing that demand) or using storage (charging batteries during the day and then using that battery power when demand is at its peak). Unfortunately for British Columbians, this second option will not be of much use. If you live in Vancouver, in February, then your solar panels won’t generate enough charge during the day to be of any use in the early evening.

This leaves us with the less palatable option, we must reduce demand during peak hours. How do British Columbian’s create efficiencies in a system that is already quite efficient? The answer is what the activists have been careful not to discuss. Absent more supply (like Site C) this will be done through “load-shifting”, “demand response” and “dynamic pricing”. These terms all mean essentially the same thing: rationing through price. All involve making power more expensive when demand is high in order to discourage its use. Under these programs, you price electricity in shorter increments (by the minute/second) with price peaking when demand is highest. This is supposed to cause users to avoid electricity-intensive activities at that time so that demand doesn’t exceed supply. How will BC Hydro do this? Well we all have smart meters on our houses so they already have the tools to charge a premium based on time of use.

I am one of the lucky ones. My wife and I have good jobs. If the price of energy rises at dinner time, we will find a way to make do. Our kids won’t be eating cold cereal for dinner nor skipping baths to save money. But that will not be the case for everyone. Come late February when the days are dark and the nights cold the cost of giving your kids a hot dinner and a warm bath before bed will simply be too much for many families to afford. Now I can hear a lot of readers complaining that I am telling a scare story. That is absolutely the case. The scariest stories are the ones that cut closest to home and the reality is that, absent more supply, the way we will have to cut our demand is by pricing some users out of the market and who gets hurt most when price becomes a premium? The poorest.

As a side-note there is an alternative to the free-market approach, but that is even less palatable. This would involve strict rationing where the government decides how much power each household gets or shuts down power altogether. This is not a scenario I’m interested in discussing at this time.

Going back to the title of this post. The use of price to address demand is the secret to the next generation of energy efficiency initiatives. It is something the activists understand but choose not to discuss because doing so will reveal the inequity inherent in this approach. It places an undue burden on those least able to afford that burden.

Having revealed this issue, let’s bring this story back to Site C. As I have written many times, Site C is not the perfect tool to address our anticipated energy needs, but in my opinion it is the best of the options out there because of a number of facts:

  • It takes advantage of its location downstream of two other dams to reduce its reservoir size compared to its capacity. Its reservoir will occupy much less space than a comparable dam elsewhere.
  • Its location downstream of two other dams means it will not have the sediment issues seen in other dams. Sediments are a serious concern in dams because it is the deposition of fresh sediments that results in methane emissions in dam reservoirs. Absent new sediment deposition the reservoir at Site C is anticipated to essentially cease producing methane after about 10 years of operation and as such Site C energy will have a very low-GHG footprint.
  • Its proximity to existing transmission infrastructure means it will not cost as much to connect to the transmission system.
  • From a cost perspective it will provide cheaper energy than the renewable options, especially when one factors in transmission costs.
  • Its power is dispatchable which increases its value as renewables start to make up a larger slice of the energy market.
  • It is secure and will belong to British Columbians, which means that when regional energy supplies are short we won’t be out there trying to buy energy in a sellers market.

On the down-side there are serious issues associated with Site C:

  • There are still unsettled issues with indigenous peoples in the region. While BC Hydro has the agreement of many of the local nations there is still work to do the ensure that the people of the Peace do not bear an undue burden to provide BC with our electricity.
  • It will flood good land and will have ecosystem effects including damaging some fisheries. Admittedly the amount of land being flooded is less than would be necessary elsewhere but good farmland will be flooded to make the reservoir possible.
  • Habitat fragmentation in the Peace is a serious concern and Site C will further exacerbate that problem.

Looking at the two lists I believe that the pros outweigh the cons and it should be possible, through government action, to help mitigate the negatives associated with the dam. This is especially important because the alternatives are so unpalatable. Those alternatives sound good when spoken of in abstract: energy efficiency, renewables… who can be against those concepts.? The problem is they are not nearly as benign in practice. Renewables are still a lot more expensive than Site C and the arguments for them only make sense if the costs continue to decrease markedly over time and even then these costs ignore the transmission system upgrades necessary to get those renewables to the grid. As for efficiency, as I discussed above what energy efficiency really means is more social inequity with the burden of fighting climate change being unfairly borne by the poorest and least able among us.

Put in the simplest of terms, to address our future energy needs we can choose to increase capacity (through Site C) or increase efficiency. From a costs perspective increasing capacity is a cost borne by our society while increasing efficiency is a cost borne by the individual. What further swings this decision to the capacity side of the ledger is the reality that those efficiency gains will be disproportionately borne by the poorest among us.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Site C, Uncategorized | 10 Comments