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How B.C. is creating a sustainable strategy with alternative energy

The investments being made to grow and develop the alternative energy sector in B.C. bodes well for the province’s environmental and economic future

The biggest criticism about alternative energy is that no single energy source will ever replace fossil fuels in meeting global energy needs.

But the argument is specious, since most people in the alternative energy business have long held that all types of sources—with fossil fuels maintaining a predominant role—will be required to serve our growing population for the foreseeable future.

Still, the rise of alternative energy (or “renewable” energy, as proponents prefer) is remarkable, especially in B.C. Here, it has grown from fringe to mainstream in a few short decades and today supplies about 20 per cent of the province’s total energy requirements (enough to power 1.5 million homes), according to Clean Energy BC.

Although sluggish world economies and the downturn of the resource sector have reduced our urgency to develop more power, Clean Energy executive director Paul Kariya believes now is the perfect time to further develop renewable resources. “The big three are wind, solar and biomass, and we have enormous potential in B.C. for more,” he reasons. “The northeast part of B.C. and Northern Vancouver Island have steady, seven-nine knot winds, and regions such as the Okanagan are renowned for their sunshine.”

As for biomass, organizations such as the Wood Pellet Association of Canada are intensifying their efforts to persuade government to grant access to waste wood that would otherwise be burned as slash (pellet producers have turned waste wood from B.C.’s forests into a $300-million-per-year export business).

Kariya, whose organization represents and advocates for clean energy project developers, points out that of the 20 per cent of renewable energy being produced here, none of it is subsidized. “Plus, last year $2 billion of capital expenditures was spent in the private clean energy sector,” he says. “So this is big business.”

With undisguised pride, he adds, “We’re the only sector First Nations people fully embrace, mainly because renewable energy projects are less impactful to the environment. Therefore, it’s important to consider that if we commit ourselves more vigorously to clean energy projects, chances are aboriginal groups will be more amenable to the pipeline projects that are an integral part of our energy future.”

Strictly from an economic viewpoint, one community that could benefit from more renewable power is Tumbler Ridge (population 2,500), whose fortunes have peaked and plummeted in tandem with the performance of the mining sector.

Jordan Wall, economic development officer for Tumbler Ridge, says while the number of people leaving town today for brighter work prospects is nowhere near the exodus that decimated his region in 2003, “We’re still hurting—but new wind farms are a way to create employment and help us get back on our feet.”

January saw construction commence on Pattern Energy Group LP’s $400-million Meikle Wind energy project near Tumbler Ridge, one of 20 independent power projects given purchase contracts in 2010 by BC Hydro. In addition to being the province’s biggest wind farm (with 61 turbines capable of delivering 588 gigawatt-hours of electricity per year to BC Hydro), the project is also generating 175 construction jobs.

And while the farm will have only nine long-term operating jobs when it is complete next year, Wall points out they are secure jobs for the 25-year term of the Pattern/BC Hydro contract.

All told, there are $2 billion worth of wind projects currently under environmental assessment in the vicinity of Tumbler Ridge. “The prospects are exciting,” says Wall, adding that mining is the major consumer of power and it’s only a matter of time before that industry rebounds. “We’re pushing hard for clean energy because it’s a great opportunity. We have some of the best wind in North America, far better than the wind patterns in Alberta.”

Concurrent with the growth of renewable energy is the ongoing evolution of Net Zero Energy Homes (i.e., homes that generate as much energy as they consume).

Ken Connolly, owner and general manager of Pheasant Hill Homes Ltd. (who is currently building his second passive energy house on Vancouver Island) notes that while solar panels, advanced heat pumps, high performance windows and other systems contribute to achieving Net Zero Energy, the biggest contributor is “sound design and construction techniques that focus on a better building envelope. With a good envelope, we reduce the amount of heat required to the point that radiant heat from the sun or electricity generated by solar panels alone can provide most, if not all, of the energy that the home requires.”

Connolly points out that Japan and Germany harvest the most solar energy per household use in the world, even though these countries receive less solar irradiation than does the south coast of B.C. “So we have great potential here, despite our cloud cover.”

Business-wise, Connolly is in an enviable position, since more and more homeowners are looking for ways to reduce their energy bills. “Also, places such as the City of Nanaimo are considering building subsidized low-cost housing that meet passive energy standards, in order to incur less operating costs,” he says.

Finally, as popular as renewable energy may be, pipelines carrying hydrocarbon-based fuel unquestionably represent the bulk of B.C.’s energy future, and when asked how they will fit into a green-minded economy, Patrick Smyth, VP, safety & engineering for the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA), replies, “By us ensuring that we’ll be best-in-class in terms of exceeding the most stringent regulatory requirements and maintaining transparency in all that we do.”

CEPA represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies, and its 12 members transport 97 per cent of our natural gas and onshore crude oil production to markets throughout Canada and the United States—with safety being the top priority.

CEPA’s recently released 2015 Pipeline Industry Performance Report reveals that the sector achieved a 99.9 per cent safe delivery of crude and natural gas in 2014; $2.9 billion was invested in member pipeline monitoring and maintenance; and 335 emergency response exercises were conducted.

But, Smyth says, “We want to do even better than this, so our members recently committed to a strategy that was inspired partly by safety initiatives undertaken by the chemical industry several decades ago and will make us a hydrocarbon transportation safety leader.”

Smyth is referring to CEPA Integrity First, a program whereby industry is working together to improve regulatory engagement, transparency and industry sustainability; improve credibility; and facilitate the exchange of ideas and best practices. “Basically, our members came together and said, ‘Under this strategy your incident is our incident, so we’re all committed to achieving zero incidents,’” says Smyth. “By holding each other responsible for their practices, we can constantly raise the bar on safety—and hopefully win the public’s trust.”