The Future of Energy in a Climate-Challenged World
bennett dam
The W A C Bennett Dam impounds the waters of Williston Lake back into the Rocky Mountain Trench. This reservoir contains over two years of river flow into the Peace River system. Its ability to deliver large amounts of electricity on demand, when needed, is limited only by the generating capacity of the Gordon Shrum generating station housed within the dam, and by downstream facilities.

The global future of energy is pretty clear. It will be largely electrical, and largely from two sources:

  1. solar photovoltaic, which is now very cost-competitive

  2. stored hydro, that is water at elevation.

SolarPV can now deliver energy as cheaply as 3 cents per kilowatt-hour in some parts of the globe. At British Columbia's latitude & climate (which give us longer periods of darkness), we can expect a higher but still competitive cost for photovoltaic power.

With current economics, technology and climate imperatives, a rapid transition to sustainable energy is entirely possible. Indeed it will be necessary, if we are to remain competitive in global markets. In other words, if we wish to compete with equatorial nations of the world where 3 cents an hour solar electricity is easy, we had better get our act together in British Columbia pretty fast.

The only thing standing in the way of the rapid acceptance of sustainable energy in the world is the intermittency of solar and wind (& tidal & wave) energy. But in British Colombia this should be no barrier at all.

Many cling to the belief that improved battery storage will solve the intermittency problem, but that belief is nullified by the realities of chemistry: batteries require typically ~50 times the mass of fossil fuels to deliver the same energy. They also require frequent replacement. Improved batteries will be important for some applications, such as electric vehicles, but otherwise they will provide only a minor contribution to our energy challenges. Only stored hydro has the magnitude and durability to address the intermittency problem on a provincial and continental scale.

We need to be able to provide hydroelectricity on demand throughout diurnal and annual cycles. We must be able to reliably generate electricity even when the sun has set, and when the wind is calm. British Columbia has a unique advantage in this regard, as we have abundant precipitation filling large bodies of water at elevation. Many of our natural lakes and engineered reservoirs can produce hydroelectricity as needed on demand without severe downstream consequences. The Columbia & Peace River systems comprise reservoir-to-reservoir flow, which is particularly powerful for this purpose. So can the lakes on Vancouver Island and the mainland coast, which can discharge their flow directly into tidewater.

In order to realize a rapid transition to sustainable energy, a few steps will be essential:

Chris Aikman

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