Written by: Karissa Ketter, News Writer
BC Hydro recently announced that they are diverting Peace River this fall in the process of constructing the Site C Dam to meet BC’s growing energy demand.
As British Columbia’s population grows and “we see more and more vehicles switch from diesel and gasoline to electric, [there is going to be a] significant increase in the energy demand,” according to SFU Resource & Environmental Management professor Zafar Adeel. This demand for energy will be met by the construction of Site C. Upon completion it will provide energy to around 450,000 homes a year.
COVID-19 caused the construction to be temporarily suspended. BC Hydro released a statement noting that the “delays have presented further cost pressures on the budget.” They resumed construction as of April 2020 and the Peace River diversion is “scheduled to take place in fall 2020 over a period of several weeks.”
The Peak spoke with Adeel to discuss the environmental implications of the project. He explained that the construction began in 2015. Since then, there has been a set of permits issued to eradicate and relocate fish habitats and beaver dams, along with the capture of various amphibians. Relocating animals upsets the balance of the natural ecosystem in the place they’re taken from and where they are moved to. This can have major environmental consequences, such as going extinct, not being able to recover, or harming life in the area they are moved to.
Opting for alternative renewable power is difficult and can be more costly than a hydroelectric dam, according to Adeel. Currently, 86% of BCs energy comes from hydroelectric power; alternative renewable power sources, such as wind power or biomass power, contributing a total of 8%. The preference for hydroelectric power can be explained by its flexibility: “Within literally a matter of minutes, you can switch on [additional hydroelectric] turbines to meet an expanded [energy demand]. However, “With wind power, with solar, you have to actually store the energy somewhere so that when the demand goes up you’re able to tap into it,” according to Adeel. Because of this, the capital cost to store energy can cause those alternatives to be too expensive. He concluded that hydropower remains the cheapest renewable source of power.
Site C has a complicated history, according to Adeel. He noted that the environmental reviews done in 1983 by the BC Utilities Commission did not recommend the construction of Site C. In the early 1990s, construction was revisited once again by BC Hydro but decided that it was “environmentally unacceptable,” as noted by Adeel. In 2010, the BC legislature removed the BC Utilities Commission review.
Indigenous peoples have also noted that the construction project is “an infringement on [their Treaty Rights.” According to Raven Trust, an organization for Indigenous justice, “there are alternatives to Site C that do not infringe upon our Treaty Rights [or] destroy the Peace River Valley.”
Site C’s reservoir would submerge “old growth forests in the area that have to be removed.” This includes Indigenous land that includes culturally significant “heritage and archaeological sites,” according to Adeel. Some have noted that amongst the land remains Indigenous burial grounds, farmland, “and the last intact section of the Peace River Valley still available for Treaty 8 members to engage in traditional practices.” More specifically, the project would damage “moose calving grounds, medicine harvesting and berry picking, and spiritual practices.” Indigenous activist Helen Knott expressed that by building the dam and destroying the way Indigenous peoples practice their culture, “[BC Hydro is] stealing from future generations, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.”
The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs expressed that “the federal and provincial governments acted irresponsibly when they granted approval for construction of the massively destructive dam.” They also stated that the United Nations condemned the construction and “and called for an immediate halt.”
Adeel noted BC Hydro’s decision to flood 128 kilometres of the Peace River, including “prime agricultural land” will severely impact the communities along the river. However, BC Hydro claims that over 13 Indigenous groups have “confirmed that they have been adequately consulted and accommodated,” according to a statement released in May 2018.
Adeel added that there are many proposals to build dams elsewhere. For example, there is a proposal to discontinue the construction of Site C and opt for building 17 additional smaller power units on Bute Island that would produce around 1,000 megawatts, equal to Site C. BC Hydro maintains that the project would provide “the best combination of financial, technical, environmental, and economic development attributes for the amount of energy and dependable capacity.”
BC Hydro declined to comment.