No, efficiency and conservation cannot replace the electricity supplied by the Site C Dam

One of the most common talking points used by the activists in the battle against the Site C Dam project has been that energy efficiency and energy conservation can more than make up for the electricity generated from the Site C Dam. This is well-described here:

an increase in population doesn’t necessarily translate into an increase in demand for electricity. B.C.’s population grew by more than half a million people since 2005, while demand for electricity remained more or less flat.

Eoin Finn, a retired KPMG partner, ran the numbers on Site C and electricity demand. He tells us that even though B.C.’s population is growing, “savings from energy efficiency and using appliances that are less energy consuming” have slowed demand.

The argument thus runs: we have absorbed a half-million people into BC in the last decade with no commensurate increase in electricity demand and therefore we can absorb another 1 million in the next 20 years without increasing demand either. As I will discuss in this post, I believe this is a dangerous fallacy. While energy efficiency initiatives are necessary, they will not address our growing electricity needs in the future. This is why we need new projects like the Site C Dam.

Let’s start with where we agree. As presented here since 2005 BC’s population grew by a half-million people while demand for electricity has remained essentially flat. In the next 20 years the population of BC is expected to grow by approximately 1 million (or by 22%). Mr. Finn argues that these 1 million can be absorbed into our population with little increase in electricity demand. This is simply not correct. As I will demonstrate, the problem with this argument is that it ignores the strides we have made in energy efficiency in the last 20 years and assumes that we can duplicate those improvements in the future. This is simply not a reasonable argument to make.

Let’s start by looking at what it has taken to achieve the energy efficiency we see today. Anyone who has lived in BC in the last 25 years knows about the Power Smart program. Started in 1989, Power Smart has been a valuable program intended to drive down individual residential consumption of electricity. Since 1989 conservation efforts have provided the equivalent electricity to power 440,000 homes a year. How has it been done? Through Power Smart programs they bought back old fridges, encouraged the purchase of Energy Star appliances and phased out the use of incandescent light bulbs in our province.

Now as the owner of a 25-year-old house I can point out that since my house was built every appliance has been replaced. That is the nature of appliances, they simply don’t last 30 years anymore. Personally, in the last decade, every non-Energy Star appliance in my house has been replaced with an Energy Star one. Similarly, most of the incandescent light bulbs in my house have been replaced with CFL and, more recently, LED bulbs that use a lot less power. Looking around my house I’m not sure where I can make further efficiencies in electricity use. My children have been raised knowing that they are expected to turn off the lights in empty rooms and my heat and hot water are from natural gas so that doesn’t help either. Looking at my house, and the houses in our neighbourhood, I can see that all the major efficiencies that can be made, have been made. There are no more easy tricks to reduce electricity demand.

On a regional level, given Power Smart initiatives and community standards, virtually every house built in the last decade has all those efficiencies built in. Consequently, Power Smart is starting to miss its goals. It is not for lack of trying, but rather because we have now reached a new state where most houses are pretty darned efficient. Certainly by raising power rates we can drive down demand somewhat (as I have noted previously) but all the big savings are now already incorporated into the system. Some have suggested regulations might be able to further reduce the load but that will be politically challenging and still won’t get us where we want to be. Essentially what I am trying to say is that our transition from inefficient to highly-efficient residential electricity use is essentially complete. Any further increases in efficiency are going to be costly and will not have anywhere near the effect that the changes of the last 25 years have already achieved.

Looking at the information presented above, it is now clear how we managed to absorb a half-million people into our province with little additional demand. But we can’t replicate that miracle with the next 1 million. There aren’t that many two-decade old fridges to buy back and new houses start out with energy-efficient bulbs in all the sockets. This explains why BCHydro load forecasts (caution big file) anticipate sales to the residential sector to grow by about 325 GWh per year (1.7 per cent). That growth is based on projected housing starts. Those houses, however efficient, are still going to need electricity to operate. So even though our per capita electricity use has gone down in the last 25 years, that decrease is the direct result of a major transition from low-efficiency to high efficiency systems.

Another feature of electricity demand ignored by the activists is the effect of reducing our reliance on natural gas in the residential sector. As I noted above, my house and the houses around it are heated and heat their water via natural gas, but that era may be coming to an end in much of the province. Consider the City of Vancouver’s “Zero Emissions Building Plan” which sees heat and hot water moving from natural gas to electricity. Even if new buildings built in Vancouver are built to passive building standards this will result in an increase in electricity demand. The energy savings will come at the expense of natural gas, not electricity. I’m not even going to discuss electric vehicles here as I have addressed them previously, suffice it to say that adding electric vehicles should not be expected to reduce electricity demand in BC.

Ultimately, BC’s residential sector represents 34 percent of BC Hydro’s domestic sales and, as discussed above, our population is anticipated to grow by 22% in the next 20 years. Contrary to what has been suggested by the activists, that growth cannot be accomplished without a commensurate growth in electricity demand. We have made great strides in energy efficiency in the last 25 years and in doing so have driven down our per capita electricity demand. We have reached a level of efficiency that means that further decrease will be potentially expensive and painful and even then will be more than made up for in our moving away from natural gas in the residential sector. So, I say this to the anti-Site C activists. If your argument is that energy efficiency is going to make up for our electricity demands going into the next decade then you had better demonstrate how that can be so. Simply stating that we did it before and therefore can do it again ignores the reality on the ground;, or put another way, when losing weight losing the last 10 lbs is a lot harder than losing the first 10 lbs.

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10 Responses to No, efficiency and conservation cannot replace the electricity supplied by the Site C Dam

  1. Garth Chapman says:

    A well reasoned case made, as always. I am wondering why you did not also addressed the impact of the desired growth in electric vehicles regarding their demand for electricity.

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  2. Martin Kral says:

    If you remove NG as a energy source for your heat and hot water, where is that NG going? Could it go to generate electricity? net-net!
    I live in all-electric new house in New Mexico with average monthly at $200US. We are on the 6th day of a 14 day heat front (101-110) with the AC set at 82F. The house feels pretty cool compared to outside.

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  3. PK T says:

    I think you really should add EVs to the argument since it appears that that’s the direction we all wish to go for our transportation needs.
    When I bought my used Civic, I did consider going electric, but the apartment I lived in and live in have no provision for recharging an EV.
    Even with gov subsidies, the EV premium was still too high given the mileage I do on average.
    Also take into consideration the collapse of the DEN – Danmark – EV mkt when the Gov withdrew the subsidy…
    Then there is the consideration of what to do with the battery when they reached the end of their service life.

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  4. Doug Mackenzie says:

    Blair, think about this conceptually. One could install a large area of PV panels. Use the electricity to pump water to a higher elevation. Nothing new. Use that water to run a generator when the sun isn’t shining. Technically the higher elevation could just be the site C dam. But why pump the water uphill at all…save the pumping electricity…the people with the PV panels don’t need as many panels because they are saving the pumping. But they can still use the electricity from the site C dam when the sun isn’t shining. Ergo, they should be willing to pay the equivalent of pumped storage (or storage batteries) for their PV system for the use of the site C dam as their storage battery. Sensible and justifiable ? Therefore a hydro dam can enable thousands more PV installations merely by being designated as “storage” for the PV system, no batteries to buy…

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