Catch the Wave: The Future of Hydropower on Vancouver Island

    Catch the wave: the future of hydropower on Vancouver Island Douglas Jun/Jul 2022

    Elders in the village of Ehthlateese (Eth-lah-tiece) recall the sounds of their oceanfront village before the two diesel generators were operating 24/7. 

    “You could hear the fish splashing in the harbour, you could hear seals flipping, you could hear birds calling,” says Ryan Anaka, director of lands and resources for the Uchucklesaht (u-chuk-les-at) Tribe Government. The Ts’a:ʔaqo:ʔa (tsa-ah-ko-ah, also known as Uchuck Creek) hydro project is currently undergoing a feasibility study and preparing to move into the design phase.

    If it proceeds to construction and operation, the project would help reduce the Uchucklesaht Tribe Government’s dependence on diesel generators and recover the traditional atmosphere that residents remember. 

    “Realistically, this project isn’t going to completely eliminate our dependence on diesel to create energy for the village,” says Anaka. “But if we can reduce a substantial part of it, it reduces the nation’s carbon footprint, it reduces overall costs and helps reestablish the village as the elders remember.” 

    The micro-hydro project will also decrease the number of fuel-replenishing barge trips made to the village and see a reduction in overall GHG (greenhouse gases) emissions.

    The $49,708 in capacity funding for the feasibility study was provided through the province’s First Nation’s Clean Energy Buisness Fund (FNCEBF). The Uchucklesaht Tribe Government was one of 10 Indigenous communities on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Island to be awarded funds from the FNCEBF this year.  

    Island Potential

    Vancouver Island’s rich natural landscape is prime for renewable energy projects. Add to that a large number of remote and end-of-line communities in the northern parts of the Island and opportunity meets demand.

    Despite Vancouver Island containing one of the province’s most energy-demanding metro areas (Victoria), the Island produces only four per cent of the province’s grid power. As a result, most of our electricity is transmitted from the mainland. 

    For off-grid communities, such as the Uchucklesaht Tribe, with two villages located 24 miles down Barkley Sound, this means relying on diesel. Micro-hydro projects present economic and emission-reduction benefits and can improve the quality of life for these populations. But even communities connected to the electrical grid can benefit from localized energy production.

    End-of-line communities are prone to blackouts when lines come down. Climate change and its increase in natural disasters will put additional stress on critical transmission lines while severe storms will impact the lines connecting the Island to the mainland. 

    “The grid as a centralized way of delivering power is unreliable,” says Cole Sayers, who sits on the board of directors for Clean Energy BC and was former director of clean energy programs at the New Relationship Trust. “And it’s nonsense because First Nations on the North Island can have enough power projects to provide their own power.”

    Building for Sustainability

    Sustainable community building is what drives Yuho Okada, president of the Barkley Project Group, a team of project managers that specialize in assisting communities through the development of their renewable energy projects, all the way from inception to completion. They are the ones conducting the feasibility study for the Uchucklesaht Tribe Government. 

    “We work almost exclusively with First Nation communities,” says Okada. “Our company is not built like traditional engineering firms that historically provided this kind of service. We really had to shift our business model to a relationship-driven process. It’s all through conversation, and conversations that take place over a long period of time.”

    The Barkley Group also prioritizes energy reduction in all of their projects. Energy-saving audits are built into their process since ultimately clean energy won’t help us significantly reduce emissions without a substantial decrease in power consumption. 

    They recently completed the Ah’ta’apq Creek Hydropower Project for Hesquiaht First Nation at Hot Springs Cove near Tofino. The 225-kilowatt run-of-river project reduces the community’s reliance on diesel by about 75 per cent, decreasing the environmental risk posed by fuel deliveries into the cove. 

    Ahtaapq Creek Hydro
    Ahtaapq Creek Hydro. Photo from:

    Independent Power Producers

    While micro-projects like the Uchuck Creek and Ahtaapq Creek hydropower projects bring significant benefits to remote areas, slightly larger projects could bring even greater benefits to Indigenous communities and the province as a whole. Grid-connected hydro projects, known as independent power producers (IPPs), sell electricity to BC Hydro.

    This not only increases the supply of clean energy available to British Columbians but creates sustainable economic opportunities in regions that need them. There are approx 102 IPPs in B.C., 21 of which are located on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. 

    One such project is the China Creek Micro-Hydropower Project, built by the Hupacasath Nation. The 6.5-megawatt (MW) project may not be large in terms of hydropower plants but it was no small undertaking.

    “We received grants from all over the place,” says Judith Sayers, President of the Nuu-chah-nulth (new-chaw-nulth) Tribal Council, and former chief of the Hupacasath (ho-putch-eh-set) Nation at the time of construction. “It was a lot of work in order to do that. It was piecemeal project money.” 

    They also had to secure an energy purchase agreement with BC Hydro. 

    “We were really concerned that the government would only choose some of the larger projects, so we had a meeting with the minister and told him that he needs to have a variety of projects,” says Judith Sayers. 

    They chose to build the dam with two turbines worth a combined $1.6-million, providing them with both a backup and the option of only running one during times of low flow. The backup proved useful the first year when a pipe fractured and required that they switch off one of the turbines. 

    Not all clean energy is made equal but the Hupacasath Nation made environmental assessments a priority during development. China Creek has impassable falls, meaning the project doesn’t disrupt salmon, and they were able to use already built service roads, which reduced both costs and impact. 

    While the Hupacasath are the majority owners, the project does have other partners. They gave the city of Port Alberni five per cent ownership in exchange for their data about China Creek. The Ucluelet First Nation owns 10 per cent, and Synex Renewable Energy Corporation owns 12 per cent. 

    The electricity purchase agreement (EPA) was secured in 2002, and they flipped the switch in 2005. With a 4.5-kilometre penstock and a 6.5 MW capacity, during high water, the project can power 6,000 homes, nearly all the homes in Port Alberni. 

    “It’s community pride,” says Judith Sayers. “We have a project that diversifies our economy, that has a steady stream of revenue. We’ve been able to build our capacity in the electricity sector. I think we were the first First Nation in B.C. to build a project. It really was an icon for the clean energy industry and First Nations.”

    Port Alberni in Vancouver Island.
    Port Alberni on Vancouver Island.

    Uncertain Future

    Unlike diesel-replacing micro-projects, there’s currently a dearth of funding for IPPs in B.C. This wasn’t always the case. Several policies introduced in the previous decade led to a growing IPP sector that invested $8.6-billion in B.C. energy projects.

    These policies included the BC Energy Plan in 2007, the Clean Energy Act 2010 and the Standing Offer Program in 2008, which promoted the development of small renewable projects. In 2019, the provincial government suspended the Standing Offer Program severely halting the development of new projects. 

    Even already built IPPs are facing uncertain futures as their multi-decade long contracts come up for renewal. BC Hydro’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) states they’ll be able to renew at the market rate but this may not reflect the cost of production. The China Creek project is up for renewal in 2025. 

    “Our business plan was based on being able to make a lot of money after we paid off our debt after our 20-year EPA,” says Judith Sayers. Now, they’re unsure if they’ll see their plans to fruition. However, Hupacasath member Cole Sayers says there’s some new hope thanks to the introduction of Indigenous clean energy opportunities. 

    “The answer isn’t just no,” says Cole Sayers. “They’re engaging with First Nations about what kind of opportunities they want.”

    For Daniel Russell, CEO of Synex Renewable Energy Corporation, it’s a no-brainer. 

    “Vancouver Island should be using every natural gift it has to develop economically viable power and selling it to the world,” says Russell. 

    Synex is an IPP, operating three run-of-river power plants on Vancouver Island, including the China Creek project, of which it owns a minority share. 

    “Independent power producers drive innovation and create competition. Why shut them out of an industry that needs to expand and should be attracting the brightest minds and people in our society?”

    Changing Models

    The main reason IPPs are being shut out is that BC Hydro’s IRP declared that no new energy-producing infrastructure would be needed until 2031. It states that, with the completion of the Site C dam, BC Hydro will have enough capacity to support the province and can purchase additional power from the U.S. during surges. Power purchased from the U.S. is cheap but may not remain so in coming years, and, unlike power from IPPs, isn’t always green. 

    Not everyone agrees with BC Hydro’s assessment. BC Hydro’s base forecasting doesn’t include the increase in demand that will arise from the electrification necessary to meet B.C.’s 2030 emission targets. Therefore, the measurements that BC Hydro is using don’t reflect the GHG reduction targets mandated by the government, but instead represent what would happen if we continue our current emission trajectory. 

    The Pembina Institute issued a report in 2021 that predicts, based on analysis, that between 10.9 and 19.1 terawatt hours (TWh) of new electricity will be needed by 2030 to meet this electrification.

    This report also argues that prioritizing Indigenous renewable energy projects would support the creation of economic opportunities required by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

    If half the predicted amount of new energy needed (5.45 TWh) came from Indigenous projects, it would create 10,000 jobs for those communities and $8.25-billion in potential new private investment. 

    “We have all these projects sitting here ready to go that will have a positive contribution toward the entire grid,” says Barkley Project Group’s Okada. “We’re not talking about competing with BC Hydro; we’re talking about economic reconciliation for First Nations; we’re talking about improvement of system performance. We’re talking about looking out for people, not just Indigenous, but remote community members.”

    There are at least 13 Indigenous renewable energy projects in B.C., representing 807 MW of capacity, that are ready to break ground with the proper financial backing. 

    “The main issue is that there’s just not opportunity to build them,” says Cole Sayers, who provided input on the Pembina report. “We want to get things rolling now so they come online in the next five to 10 years because it’s going to take that time to get projects ready. And we need to be developing these policy mechanisms to provide power to actually achieve these things.”

    Catch the wave: the future of hydropower on Vancouver Island Douglas Jun/Jul 2022
    Sources: BC Hydro, Pembina reports analysis.

    Power Breeds Business

    Though IPPs are facing policy roadblocks, even small hydro projects can have a profound impact on a community’s economy. Back in the village of Ehthlateese, other plans are in motion. The Uchucklesaht Tribe Government is in their third year of a revitalization project to support the return of nation members to their traditional village.

    They are also about to embark on a five-year economic development plan, which will explore opportunities in cultural and ecotourism among other potential ventures. At the heart of all of this, is one key requirement: power.

    The Ts’a:ʔaqo:ʔa hydro project would not only reduce the community’s emissions, but create the green energy foundation necessary to further the nation’s economic development opportunities. The hydropower, if proven by the feasibility study, would be cheaper, reducing the cost of doing business and hopefully enticing new ventures in the area. 

    “It allows us, from a business perspective, and from both a Western science and traditional cultural perspective, to get back to Hishuk Tsawak — everything is interconnected,” says Anaka. “It allows us to operate more from a balanced perspective.” ′