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BC Hydro keeps an eye on the weather, and on climate change

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BC Hydro operates about 50 weather stations in more remote areas around the province. Equipment is raised high up on a platform to keep it above the snow in winter, but that doesn’t always prevent snow from causing problems with winter data collection

Storm and water level information vital to a utility that relies on hydroelectricity

Stephanie Smith has been known to spend time in her backyard, flat on her back, staring up at the clouds in the sky.

"I just have this curiosity about what's going on up there," says Smith, who manages BC Hydro's hydrology and technical services team.

If it's a Canadian thing to talk about the weather, then consider Smith to be very, very Canadian. Then again, it's her job.

Smith leads a team that plays a vital role in a utility that leans so heavily on hydroelectric generation that knowledge of water – from when it's coming, to how much is coming, to how long it will keep coming – is essential business intelligence.

Formed a couple decades ago, mainly to deliver location-specific weather and water data to the folks who fuss over reservoir levels at BC Hydro, Smith's team includes meteorologists, hydrologists, engineers, scientists, technologists, and analysts. Their role is to provide weather and water data reliable enough to inform decisions on reservoir management, but also to ensure BC Hydro crews are prepared to act before a storm hits.

On one occasion, Smith's team predicted that strong winds in the Strait of Georgia would lead to the cancellation of ferries, which could prevent supplemental BC Hydro crews from reaching Vancouver Island in time to deal with storm-related power outages.

"It allowed us to mobilize early and get the crews across to Vancouver Island," she says. "They were pre-positioned to help get the power back and flowing to the customer. It's really rewarding when you're able to give good information that helps with decisions."

The long-term outlook: Water, and lots of it

One of Smith's challenges is to consider the effects of climate change, which will make or break BC Hydro's continued ability to deliver clean, renewable electricity. The hydrologists on her team work closely with research groups including the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, which seeks to offer practical information for British Columbians on climate change.

BC Hydro has worked with some of the world's leading scientists in climatology, glaciology, and hydrology to determine how climate change may affect our water supply in the future.

B.C. is slowly getting warmer, and B.C.'s 1,700 glaciers are shrinking to the point that some believe they could be gone by the end of this century. A few years back, a University of Northern B.C. research group estimated that B.C.'s glaciers produce enough water each year to fill up BC Place Stadium 8,300 times.

It appears that BC Hydro may see a shift in timing of water supply runoff, with an increase in fall and winter, and a decrease in late spring and summer, leading to 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," says 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."

That conclusion is pretty important when you're studying the viability of a dam the size of the Site C Clean Energy Project, a proposed third dam on the Peace River. Currently in the environmental assessment phase, the dam and its 1,100 megawatts of power are seen as essential to helping meet the expected 40 per cent increase in B.C.'s demand for power over the next 20 years.

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Members of BC Hydro's hydrology and technical services team get up close and personal with snow levels near a climate monitoring station on Mount Seymour in 2009.

We need more than Environment Canada weather data

BC Hydro works with meteorologists at Environment Canada regularly to gather weather data and make decisions affecting our business. But Smith's team also operates about 50 weather stations and 65 snow courses (marked locations for measuring snow) around B.C., and partners with the likes of the Water Survey of Canada, funding close to 100 water-monitoring stations.

"Environment Canada's main role in weather forecasting is public safety," explains Smith. "They're looking at impacts in cities, to where the people and industry are, and they're very much focused on protecting life and property. That's their main mandate."

A lot of BC Hydro infrastructure, including reservoirs and several major transmission lines, is in northern and interior areas far away from larger cities and towns. BC Hydro must seek out weather and water information specific to those outlying areas.

Smith's team is also dealing with some new challenges, including providing predictive wind data about wind generation operations in B.C. She says there's a lot to learn about which data is most valuable to such operations, including the 102-megawatt Bear Mountain Wind Park near Dawson Creek.

"I think we've had some really good success in terms of predicting either when there will be a lot of wind generation, or where it will cut out quite suddenly and we have to plan our generation around this variable source of power," she says. "If the wind dies or if it gets too high, the wind generators can't run."

Nasty ice storms not likely to happen here

A winter of brutal ice storms in eastern Canada serves to remind us just how lucky we are here in B.C., where the main concerns are rain, snowpack and wind.

Smith says that while we do get some freezing rain, it's not likely to stay around long enough to accumulate enough ice to snap trees. She notes that our version of extreme weather is different, such as the windstorm of 2006 that felled thousands of trees in Stanley Park, and the summer floods in many areas of B.C. in 2012. 

It was an experience with another version of extreme weather, the tornadoes that hit the Edmonton area on July 31, 1987, which helped push a certain Edmonton teenager on a weather-centric career path.

"I wasn't right near where any of the tornadoes were, but you could tell something was coming that was very big and different – just the energy in the air," says Smith, recalling the tornado that killed 27 people. "I think being there helped shape my vision of what I wanted to do."