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Site C dam proposal moves ahead

Proposed Site C dam near Fort St. John would be the fourth largest in B.C., after the W.A.C. Bennett, Revelstoke and Mica dams.  - BC Hydro illustration
Proposed Site C dam near Fort St. John would be the fourth largest in B.C., after the W.A.C. Bennett, Revelstoke and Mica dams.
— image credit: BC Hydro illustration

VICTORIA – BC Hydro has completed the opening phase of a feasibility study on the construction of a third dam on the Peace River, estimating that the project could cost between $5 billion and $6.6 billion.

That's roughly twice the cost estimate given when the Site C project was presented to the B.C. Utilities Commission in 1982. It's based on the generating facilities coming online starting in 2018, and BC Hydro warns that it's only preliminary, with costs rising due to inflation and many engineering unknowns.

Premier Gordon Campbell announced the resumption of Site C studies this fall as part of the province's goal to become energy self-sufficient while eliminating a third of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

The preferred location for Site C is downstream from the existing W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon dams, seven kilometres southwest of Fort St. John. Taking advantage of flow from the huge Williston Lake reservoir, the project is expected to produce about 30 per cent of the power of the W.A.C Bennett dam with a reservoir only five per cent as big.

The two Peace River dams now account for about a third of the province's domestic energy supplies.

The 900 megawatt capacity of Site C would represent about eight per cent of BC Hydro's peak power demand, and is one of the last steady large sources of electricity remaining to the utility. The province's 2007 energy plan stalled coal proposals by requiring 100 per cent carbon dioxide capture, and formally ruled out nuclear power as an option for B.C.

BC Hydro has moved to the second of a five-stage study, focusing on project definition and consultation with affected communities. A separate consultation will take place with affected aboriginal groups, extending into northern Alberta where the Peace flows.

Jack Weisgerber, a member of the B.C. Treaty Commission and B.C.'s first aboriginal relations minister, has been appointed by Energy Minister Richard Neufeld to lead the first nations consultation.

Announcing the resumption of dam studies at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in September, Campbell said it would not be subject to a B.C. government policy that new power projects would be privately owned and contracted to the provincial utility.

"If it does proceed, I can tell you it will be part of BC Hydro's heritage assets and kept in public hands," Campbell said.

Despite the enormous up-front costs, dams such as Site C have low operating costs once established and are expected to provide clean and continuous power for more than 100 years.

BC Hydro is also studying the possible impact of climate change on its network of dams. Preliminary studies suggest there could be increases or decreases of up to 10 per cent in water flows could result from climate shifts, depending on the time of year and the region of the province.

Another study is underway with the University of Northern B.C. to look at the effect of climate change on glaciers and its impact on water flows.

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