The Future of Energy in a Climate-Challenged World
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:
solar photovoltaic, which is now very cost-competitive
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:
Simplify all regulatory matters that presently pose a barrier to individual and communal solar photovoltaic electricity production. It should be cheap and easy to link into the provincial power grid. Once the regulatory barriers are lowered, market forces will rapidly promote the installation of solarPV panels in all regions of British Columbia.
We need to change the mindset of the BC Hydro Board of Directors. That Board has historically viewed energy from the perspective of the fossil fuel (especially natural gas) industries. It is essential to recognize the depth of the current bias, because BC Hydro has repeatedly and consistently overlooked British Columbia's amazing potential for hydro-on-demand. This topic has a long history; I'd be happy to discuss it further with anyone who is interested.
Step up the expansion of peak generating capacity on the Columbia and Peace river systems, and at all other BC Hydro generating stations.
Preserve and reclaim provincial water rights on all watersheds that are well positioned to deliver hydro-on demand. In particular, we should reclaim the billions of dollars (in 2016 values) of public investment that was made for the Kemano Completion Project on the Nechako Reservoir. It is notable that the key element to solve the intermittency problem has already been built and paid for, out of the public purse. Reclaiming this investment shall require a strong political will.