Saturday, June 21, 2008

An Inconvenient Solution

Here in British Columbia we’re an eco-sensitive bunch of folks. For many years now we’ve had a moratorium on Uranium mining and a generation ago BC Hydro’s Site C dam project was shelved in the face of public opposition. Even relatively eco friendly run of the river micro hydro projects have faced stiff opposition from a plethora of environmental groups.

But the fact is that B.C. has gone from being a net exporter to a net importer of electrical power and that means we are all soon going to be paying a lot more for electricity. Worse still without additional electrical generation capacity our province will eventually face rolling blackouts brownouts which would cause massive economic disruption.

To prevent this BC Hydro has dusted off its plans for Site C and is quietly proceeding ahead. The BC Transmission Corporation is meanwhile investing billions of dollars in significantly upgrading our province’s power transmission infrastructure. BC Hydro is also hoping that with new more energy efficient technology that British Columbians will somehow be able to reduce their electrical energy consumption by a third.

With BC’s steadily increasing population a one third reduction in electrical consumption is extremely optimistic and completely out to lunch if the much heralded era of plug in electric gas hybrid vehicles comes to be. In fact one energy executive told me that if the majority of British Columbians switched to hybrid vehicles that they needed to plug in overnight so they could run on battery power most of the time then BC would need the equivalent of 17 Site C dams to meet the additional electrical demand.

The inconvenient truth that British Columbians are going to have to come to grips with sooner or later is that the only non-fossil fuel burning energy source that can possibly meet our long term energy needs is Nuclear Power. In Europe the about face on Nuclear Power is already happening: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently stated, "We need 1,000 more nuclear power plants to lessen our addiction to oil."

Italy which is presently the only G8 country without operating nuclear power plants pays the highest electricity rates in Europe. Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi has stated, "We are going to build more nuclear power stations" and plans on making Nuclear Power the central element of increasing Italy’s energy self-sufficiency.

Canada is also building new Nuclear Power plants. On June 17th the Government of Ontario announced that two new nuclear power stations would be built near Toronto. There has also been on-going talk of building a Nuclear Power station near the Alberta tar sands so as to eliminate the need to burn natural gas in order to generate the steam needed to extract oil.

France, which since the 1970s has derived 90% of its electricity from Nuclear Power, has not had a single accident or fatality. They also pay amongst the lowest electrical rates in Europe. The United States which turned away from Nuclear Power after the incident at Three Mile Island generates 52% of its electrical power by burning coal, the mining of which kills 200 hundred Americans a years while thousands more die of the resulting air pollution.

Here in BC "nuclear" is still a dirty word but the fact is that sooner or later we are going to have to start building them here in BC. We might have to wait until the first rolling blackouts occur, but there is simply not enough in the way of Site Cs, run of the river or even wind projects that can possibly hope to meet our future energy consumption needs.

Mike Geoghegan is an economist and government relations consultant based in Victoria, BC. He can be reached via his website at