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What does UN's warning on climate change mean for BC Hydro?

Image of Prince George with winter snow
Winter takes hold on a river near Prince George.

Expect a wetter B.C., with an increase in fall and winter water supply

Posted by Rob Klovance

It wasn't a surprise that the United Nations reiterated earlier this month that climate change is almost entirely caused by humans. But the latest report came with a warning that the impacts of climate change may require reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero this century.

"Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in their message," said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as the report was launched in Copenhagen. "Leaders must act. Time is not on our side."

So what does the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report mean for British Columbia, and more specifically, for BC Hydro and the future of hydroelectric power?

The short answer is that with our reliance on clean and renewable power, BC Hydro produces 93% clean electricity and is more a part of the solution than the problem. And at least for the foreseeable future, climate change will not reduce our ability to continue to provide affordable, dependable hydroelectric power to British Columbians.

A few months back, I sat down with Stephanie Smith, who manages BC Hydro's hydrology and technical services team. Over the course of the interview, I learned a few key things about the expected effects of climate change in B.C., including:

  • BC Hydro is likely to see a shift in the timing of water supply runoff, with an increase in fall and winter, and a decrease in late spring and summer.
  • The shift in timing of supply is expected to result in a modest increase in annual water supply, particularly for watersheds in the Interior.

"The message in B.C. is that while things are changing, they're not changing that much," said Smith. "If anything, they're changing to be a bit wetter for us. So if you're planning to build a dam, for example, and relying on a certain amount of water to be there to generate electricity, the picture looks really good in B.C."

BC Hydro recently received environmental approval from the B.C. and federal governments for the Site C Clean Energy Project, a proposed third dam on the Peace River. Final approval by government is expected later this year, and the site preparation for the dam could start in early 2015. The project would produce 1,100 megawatts of power, which is seen as essential to helping meet the expected 40 per cent increase in B.C.'s demand for power over the next 20 years.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is big on renewable energy, including hydroelectricity, as the answer to helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC says the costs associated with mitigation action such as shifting the energy system to renewables and improving energy efficiency would reduce the world's economic growth only by 0.06 per cent annually.

BC Hydro has been carbon neutral in operations since 2010

BC Hydro became carbon neutral in our operations in 2010, along with the entire B.C. public sector. This includes GHG emissions from our vehicle fleet, buildings (energy used for heating, cooling, lighting, and IT equipment) and paper use, in accordance with the Province's guidelines for public sector organizations.

Each year, we report on our reduction measures in a Carbon Neutral Action Report [PDF, 620 KB]. We also offset any remaining emissions from these sources through investments in offsets from B.C.'s Ministry of Environment.

A great way to avoid CO2 emissions? Conservation

The demand for electricity in B.C. will continue to grow, so BC Hydro is leaning on conservation and efficiency to reduce the amount of additional electricity we'll need to produce to keep up. That will make it easier for us to lean on clean energy sources to keep up to demand growth.

Today, efficient use of power and changes in behaviour in homes and businesses across B.C. save the equivalent amount of electricity to meet the annual needs of more than 440,000 homes — enough to power every home on Vancouver Island, the north coast and central B.C.

The province's Clean Energy Act directs BC Hydro to lean on conservation and efficiency — known as Demand Side Management — to reduce growth in demand by 66 per cent by 2020. And we're taking that a step further by planning for an even more aggressive goal, the reduction of expected growth by 78 per cent.

Meanwhile, BC Hydro is also getting involved in helping set up infrastructure for plug-in electric vehicles, as B.C. is in the unique position of leaning on affordable, clean electricity to power vehicles, as gas-powered cars remain one of the biggest producers of carbon emissions. Earlier this month, we hosted an electric vehicle ride and drive event outside our downtown Vancouver office on Dunsmuir Street.

Of course, as the UN report states, there's a lot of work to do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero this century. Car sales in Canada hit a record in October, in part due to a dramatic rise in the sales of light trucks, including crossover and sport utility vehicles. And worldwide, car sales in 2014 are expected to hit a record 72 million.

Rob Klovance is managing editor of bchydro.com.