BC Hydro debate ignores the urgent need to replace fossil fuels

Imagine you arrive home after work and plug in your car. It charges overnight while rates are lower. You fall asleep in a quiet, comfortable home. You no longer need a carbon monoxide alarm to monitor the emissions from gas furnaces, hot water tanks, or stoves.

In the morning, your partner heads to their job on fully decarbonized transit, to an office building warmed by electric heat pumps. Your kid waves goodbye before hopping on the electric school bus. She can focus better in class, now that she’s not breathing diesel exhaust.

As you pull out of your driveway the roof catches the morning light. It will work all day, silently returning energy to the grid. Your solar panels slowly pay themselves off, while you live another day in your life entirely free from burning fossil fuels.

This is not some futuristic fantasy. We have all the technology today. What’s missing is the public policy in B.C. to make it work – and the political courage to challenge the stranglehold of the oil and gas industry.

Lost in translation

If there’s one reason British Columbia is sleepwalking into the climate crisis it’s this: We’re failing to see the entire energy picture. The NDP’s Bill 17 has prompted a debate over whether B.C. should generate more renewable energy at home – or buy it cheap from California.

This leaves out the fact that all the jurisdictions we might buy power from are now in a desperate race to decarbonize: first their electrical grids, and then their economies, using that renewable energy. As B.C. does the same, we’ll need every last drop of electricity we can produce to have a hope of hitting our emissions targets.

Although the majority reading Dogwood News last week agreed we shouldn’t rely on the U.S. for renewable energy, others pushed back. Like Energy Minister Bruce Ralston, some feel it is reasonable to repeal provincial self-sufficiency requirements if it stops BC Hydro bills from rising in the short term.

But this is an argument missing the big picture. Clean electricity, whether produced privately or publicly, in B.C. or in California, is just a fraction of the energy we use. Most of our economy still runs on liquid fuels or burning gas – and that’s what has to be replaced.

It’s a monumental task. Pembina estimates four fifths, or roughly 80 per cent of B.C.’s overall energy consumption still comes from fossil fuels.

A disturbing emissions picture

Dogwood challenging Bill 17 is not an endorsement of the private power industry, or of the status quo. The question is whether repealing B.C.’s self-sufficiency regulations will actually help us fight climate change. Something is obviously wrong when after 12 years of “climate action” our emissions haven’t decreased. In fact, they’re on the rise once again.

Gordon Campbell killed coal-fired electricity in B.C., introduced a modest carbon tax and set a target for greenhouse gas reductions. However, Christy Clark didn’t carry that torch. And the BC NDP has carried forward key parts of Clark’s energy agenda, including taxpayer subsidies for fracking and LNG.

If completed, the LNG Canada plant in Kitimat would burn gas to run compressors to turn other gas into liquid for loading onto ships. This is a ticking carbon bomb. As The Tyee reported last week, if just one fracked gas project gets built, the province will blow past its 2050 target by 160 per cent “even if the rest of the economy’s emissions are reduced to zero”.

At the same time, the province has scaled back electric vehicle rebate credits and its green building strategy is behind schedule. Rail corridors which could take thousands of cars off the road sit empty. “Clean BC” polls well, but any climate plan designed to accommodate a failing, publicly subsidized fossil fuel industry contains a fatal contradiction.

Arguing amongst ourselves over how best to manage B.C.’s small slice of clean electricity lets the government off the hook. Instead, we need to demand rapid and dramatic progress on fuel switching and a clear definition of clean energy (something B.C. still doesn’t have).

In the meantime, thwarting any new form of clean electricity in B.C. makes no sense.

California still burning gas for electricity

In the most comprehensive study to date on the electrification of transportation in B.C., researchers at UVic calculated we’ll need to double our electrical generation to eliminate emissions in this key sector. At the same time, the Western states that BC Hydro is eyeing as future electricity sources face an even greater challenge.

Take California. 46 per cent of their utility level energy is produced by burning gas. To meet their much stricter climate targets, they must first decarbonize their power plants. Then, they must transition a much larger economy than ours off fossil sources.

As California’s hydroelectric production has suffered (due to climate-crisis induced drought) they are falling behind. They already have a large energy trading deficit with B.C. Can we really build our plans around a surplus of “very, very cheap” renewable energy from the States?

The shared grid will always be a pathway to trade electricity. We’re fortunate in B.C. to be able to use it to our advantage. However, falling technology prices mean solar energy produced close to home in sunny southeast B.C. could be just as economical (possibly more) than electrons transmitted from California. The same goes for wind power produced off the northern tip of Haida Gwaii, or geothermal from the already drilled gas wells in the north: they are sources of new power right where we need them.

Putting people in charge

What we are fighting is the latest in a series of deliberate blows against independent, community-controlled energy.

Why? “The model for a sustainable economy requires diversification of energy sources placed throughout B.C.,” Chief Patrick Michell of the Kanaka Bar Band told the Globe and Mail. Indigenous communities were shut out of the economy on their own territories for decades. Now, many want to be part of a distributed, local clean energy revolution.

Second, those projects are a beacon of hope in a province still reeling from COVID-19. “There’s a way to stimulate rural and remote areas to create partnerships with municipalities, First Nations and industry and create jobs here,” says Cole Sayers of the B.C. Indigenous Clean Energy Initiative.

Third, emissions reductions experts will tell you that generating energy close to where it is consumed is the best way to make switching off fossil fuels affordable. A large part of your power bill is the fees that go into transmission, distribution and billing itself.

Finally, this is how we loosen the grip of big energy corporations on our democracy. They can’t hold us hostage over a few pipeline jobs if people are cutting their own dependence on oil and gas, thanks to locally-generated clean power.

Bill 17 blocks all of that, at the worst possible time. MLA Andrew Weaver has introduced a proposed amendment to the bill that would make room for Indigenous and community-owned renewable energy in B.C. Tell your representative you want to see clean local power as part of our province’s energy future.