Many ways of generating electricity, and large hydro makes it all possible

View from top of Revelstoke Dam shows penstocks and parking lot for the Dam Visitor Centre.
Small clean electricity generation is an important part of our system but it's not a replacement for large hydroelectric power, which offers the advantage of storing water for the generation of power when we most need it.

Solar, biomass, waste heat, and wind now part of B.C.'s power mix

With a name like BC Hydro, you might think that all of the electricity from the utility was created by the flow of water. Well, much of it is. But there's more to BC Hydro than just water.

Rohan Soulsby is responsible for business and economic development here at BC Hydro. In an interview, he explained that generating electricity from clean and renewable sources isn't simply mandated by the provincial government. "This is something that is clearly desirable and being demanded by our customers," he said.

That's why we include other sources of electricity generation in our business, such as biomass, solar, and wind. Since the late 1980s, the province's electricity supply has been supplemented by power-producing projects that are operated by private companies.

There are more than 100 such projects currently in service generating electricity for delivery to BC Hydro. They are 25% of our supply, said Soulsby, which is a "significant chunk of BC Hydro's available resources".

And the vast majority of them are renewable.

Independent power producers supplement B.C.'s electricity supply

Electricity from independent producers must also be clean and renewable. Projects currently generating electricity for B.C. are found throughout the province, and include:

  • Biomass: electricity is generated either by burning or by converting biomass to a fuel, which is then used to generate power
  • Run-of-river: the current of a river is used to generate electricity
  • Solar: energy from the sun's rays are converted to electricity using photovoltaic cells
  • Municipal solid waste: combustion or gasification of waste to generate electricity
  • Waste heat: when heat is generated as a byproduct of other processes, it can be used to generate electricity
  • Wind: windmills generate electricity when spinning

While most of the independent projects are run-of-river, our portfolio is becoming more diverse.

A perfect example, according to Soulsby, is Kimberley's SunMine, which he calls a "utility-scale solar farm". The former mining town in the Kootenays gets more than 300 sunny days each year, making it a perfect place for a solar project. Owned by the community, SunMine started operating commercially in July, and there's already talk of expansion.


Doing what we do best

The reason we rely on private industry to develop complementary power projects is simple. While our company has a long history of developing large hydro projects and the necessary transmission infrastructure, we don't have expertise with smaller projects. Better, said Soulsby, to let industry experts develop those. "We think it's much more prudent for us, and cost-effective for ratepayers," he added.

The independent projects are varied, but they have one thing in common: they are intermittent. The sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow.

Nobody would be satisfied with an unpredictable supply of electricity. We rely on it being available whenever we need it.

As Soulsby puts it: "In order for the citizens of British Columbia to cook their Christmas turkey and eat it at six o'clock on Christmas Day, they need to know that electricity is going to be there at that time."

And while solar and wind generation projects may be intermittent, the large hydro backbone of the system is the very measure of consistency.

Too much of a good thing

Run-of-river projects are also hydroelectric, but they don't have the ability to store water in reservoirs the way BC Hydro's main power plants do. Soulsby explained that one of the key challenges is that run-of-river operations are dependent on stream flows, which are dependent on snow pack and snow melt.

So run-of-river power stations generate the most electricity in the spring. "Which coincides with when all the inflows come into BC Hydro's own resources," Soulsby said. "So we have a challenge having to handle all of this energy that comes in at one time."

BC Hydro is, he said, "looking for sources of renewable and clean electricity that don't have the same profile as our own resources". In other words, another source that can generate electricity during other times of the year.

And geothermal electricity generation is, said Soulsby, "of great interest".

"Throughout our history, BC Hydro has always been a company that has prided itself on developing clean and renewable sources of energy," said Soulsby. That clearly hasn't changed.