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Vaughn Palmer: Site C hits a milestone, but NDP not cheering

Opinion: Given Site C’s history of cost overruns, engineering problems and political woes, celebrations should wait until the power plant is fully operational

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VICTORIA — B.C. Hydro this week reported record electricity consumption as sweltering customers turned on air conditioners and fans in unprecedented numbers.

“Electricity demand record for August broken amid heat wave,” read the headline on the news release Tuesday.

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Still, the demand was only about three quarters of peak loads “during the coldest and darkest days of the year.”

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The utility went on to assure customers that “its renewable and reliable hydroelectric system can meet the additional demand.”

For now anyway.

As Premier David Eby conceded back in June, Hydro is forecasting a 15 per cent increase in demand over the next few years. He said the utility needs to acquire an additional 3,000 gigawatt hours of electricity “as early as 2028,” enough to power 270,000 homes.

That target is in addition to the roughly 5,000 GWh a year to be produced by Site C, enough for 450,000 homes. The giant hydroelectric dam on the Peace River is scheduled to be fully operational by the end of 2025.

Happily for the New Democrats, B.C. Hydro was able to report some good news in that regard recently, when it announced “a major milestone on the Site C project with the completion of the earth fill dam.”

“The earth-fill dam stands about 60 metres tall (the height of a 20-storey building), stretches more than one kilometre across the Peace River and is about 500 metres wide at its base,” boasted the news release. “In total about 16 million cubic metres of earth-fill material was placed.”

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With those superlatives, one might have expected the provincial government to handle the announcement with more than a one-page news release.

Cabinet ministers in hard hats. Validators from the union, the community and Indigenous nations.
Perhaps there’d be the premier himself at the wheel of the machinery to deposit the last load of those 16 million cubic metres of earth.

Still, the New Democrats did nothing to mark the topping up of the earth fill dam.

Granted, B.C. Liberal Premier Christy Clark approved Site C, oversaw the start of construction eight years ago and fulfilled her vow to get it “past the point of no return” before she lost her legislative majority in 2017.

The New Democrats haven’t hesitated to take credit for other projects — housing, highways, health care facilities — that were started on the watch of the previous government.

Why not Site C?

The New Democrats took ownership of the project not once, but twice: in 2017 when they decided to continue construction and again in 2021 when they pressed on despite the discovery of geotechnical instabilities in the foundations of the dam.

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The project remains a source of embarrassment to the New Democrats in political terms.

In Opposition, they were against building Site C, insisting the power wasn’t needed. It led more than a few of their own supporters to believe they would kill it if they took office.

“Site C Sucks,” declared then leader, soon to be premier, John Horgan in a posting still accessible on the internet.

Despite the NDP government’s two approvals, the project remains controversial among supporters who deplore the flooding of agricultural land and the trampling of Indigenous rights. Others would substitute smaller scale renewables like wind, solar and geothermal power.

Perhaps, too, the New Democrats have been scanning the fine print of B.C. Hydro’s updates on the project.

Officially, Hydro says Site C is “on track” and due to be completed within the current $16 billion budget. That’s Hydrospeak for a year late and costing twice as much as the initial budget.

In Hydro’s latest update on the project to the B.C. Utilities Commission, posted in June, the utility added a few caveats about things that could still go wrong at Site C:

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• “Right bank foundation enhancements at approach channel require additional work.”

• “Tunnel conversion delayed due to constructability, condition, safety or operational issues.”

• “Increasing regulatory requirements relating to management of potentially acid-generating rock.”

Plus, for connoisseurs of the B.C. Hydro footnote, there was this admission at the bottom of page 45:
“The list of risks and opportunities do not include (those) that are subject to confidentiality obligations or solicitor-client privilege, or that disclose commercially sensitive information relating to matters that are currently outstanding, including procurements and negotiations that are in progress at the time of this report, the disclosure of which would be harmful to B.C. Hydro’s commercial interests.”

Never mind Hydro’s political interests.

Though Hydro reported in June that Site C was 75 per cent complete (and the budget 70 per cent spent), much remains to be done.

Hydro is not sure if it will be ready to begin filling the reservoir this fall or have to leave it to next year.

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The first of six generating units is scheduled to begin operating two months after the October 2024 election. The last of the six is supposed to come on line at the end of 2025.

Given what has gone before, whichever party forms government after the next election might want to wait until Site C is fully operation before staging any celebration.

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