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BC Hydro produces enough electricity for when you need it most

Image of Vancouver Yaletown at night
When electricity demand is at its peak in B.C., such as an early evening in December, generating stations in the interior of the province can be called upon to produce at full capacity.

Planning B.C.'s electrical system is about designing it for peak energy demands

Electricity in B.C. is like an L.A. freeway: 10 lanes when you need them most. Not quite sure how that works? Bear with us.

On Sundays at 4 a.m., it can be eerie driving a car down a near-empty Los Angeles freeway. It's late enough that the partiers have straggled home, and early enough that the office workers haven't started their morning trek. Driving at that time, you'd wonder why L.A. has roads with 10 lanes, five going in each direction.

But try driving that same route at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday and you'll see why L.A. has one of the most extensive freeway systems in North America. The traffic is bumper-to-bumper for miles and miles.

Roads can't be built as they're needed, and when Angelenos need those extra lanes, they really need them.

The same is true for energy, right here in B.C.  While we're meeting current electricity needs in B.C., Statistics Canada projects that the province's population of 4.6 million will increase by a million  in the next 15 years.

Keeping electricity affordable for a million more B.C. residents means that we need to continue to make smart investments.

More people using more electricity at the same time

Not only do customers expect BC Hydro to be able to supply enough electricity, we expect that electricity to be available when we need it. So we must be able to provide enough energy for everyone at the same time. We call this "capacity", and it has a tremendous influence on how much reliable generating power we need to build into B.C.'s electrical system.

The two key factors that determine overall demand for electricity are: time of day, and weather.

On weekday evenings in the winter, almost every customer is using electricity. Take a typical Thursday in December. At 5 p.m., families are getting home from school and work. Somebody's making supper while watching the news on television. The kids are out of clean socks for the next day, so a load of laundry is running. Those same kids are listening to music while doing their homework, or playing video games. The lights are all on.

ln fact, during the cold snap last December, BC Hydro prepared for record-breaking demand for electricity.

Contrast that with 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning when almost everyone is asleep. The lights are off and, in households where it's understood how much energy and money can be saved overnight, the heat is turned down. BC Hydro doesn't need to provide as much electricity.

But the electrical system in B.C. can't be designed around early Sunday mornings, just as L.A. can't design its road infrastructure for when there are no cars on the road.

They both need to be developed with enough capacity to accommodate us when things are busy.

Why B.C. needs electrical capacity and how we're helping

With our tablets and smartphones and other assorted gadgets, we all use more electricity now than ever before.

And each of us is taking responsibility for being smart about how we use energy. We unplug chargers when they're not being used. We turn off lights when we don't need them. We turn down the thermostat at night.

Customers on Vancouver Island are participating in a project to help manage the demand for electricity. People are installing more efficient hot water heating systems in their homes, for example. Business customers are bringing efficiency to heating and cooling, refrigeration, and lighting.

But while conservation efforts can help ease the total amount of electricity used in the province, the system needs to be able to accommodate those situations when everyone needs power at the same time.

Other sources of electricity

There are other ways to generate renewable power, but solar, wind, and similar sources aren't always available. The sun sets and the wind stops blowing. So while these sources can be used to supply electricity, they can't be turned on and off when they're needed. Unlike our dams, which can store power in reservoirs until needed, they can't help offset BC Hydro's need for capacity. Solar power can't help on that cold Thursday evening in December when families are all coming home at the same time.

Geothermal electricity generation – in which deep wells are drilled to access hot underground water or steam – is another "always-on" possibility, and BC Hydro is looking at ways to support its development. But even Iceland, so geothermically active that 85% of home heating needs are from water heated by the earth's core, 70% of electricity is hydroelectric.

A stable electricity grid with hydroelectric generation at its core allows for the integration of other renewable sources, while at the same time making sure that customers have electricity when they need it.

It's like having a good highway system that's 10 lanes instead of 12 because a growing number of people are walking, biking, and taking transit to work.