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COLUMN: Shutting PoMo's Burrard Thermal makes no sense

T he provincial government has ordered BC Hydro to permanently remove Burrard Thermal's power-generating equipment in 2016.

The provincial government has ordered BC Hydro to permanently remove Burrard Thermal's power-generating equipment in 2016. As someone who recently retired after working at Burrard for 24 years, I believe that is a short-sighted decision and a colossal waste of taxpayers' money.

Burrard is a heritage asset that is fully paid for and would cost billions to replace. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent over the last few decades to make it more reliable and to lower its environmental footprint.

Nitrogen oxide emissions were reduced by 85% and residual chlorine in the cooling water was cut to virtually zero. Oil-burning equipment was removed, leaving natural gas as the only fuel - that's the same natural gas Premier Christy Clark is touting as "green energy."

Unlike many independent power producers (IPP), Burrard Thermal can deliver firm power on demand, making it ideal for peak loads and emergencies. There is a glut of cheap gas on the market, so fuel supply and cost are not issues. Hydro is paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year for intermittent IPP power that is not always needed, so why is there an issue with spending $20 million a year to keep Burrard available as a firm power source?

Burrard's efficiency is typical for a stand-by plant. No electrical utility spends money to make a plant highly efficient if it sits idle most of the time. More important than efficiency is reliability, yet Hydro has lately been spending a lot less to maintain this plant compared to what other utilities spend on comparable plants. For example, the Lennox stand-by plant in Ontario has roughly twice the power output but its stand-by cost is more than four times that of Burrard's. Yet the Ontario Power Authority has no plans to shut this plant down as it provides good value as a backup should there be unforeseen outages, according to a recent article in the Toronto Star.

Where will BC Hydro get sufficient energy if there is an extremely low water year? The run-of-the-river IPP would be of no help, and neither would the hydro plants in the U.S. northwest. The electrical grid is not designed to import large amounts of power from the east. There is no other thermal plant in all of B.C. that is anywhere near the size of Burrard.

And what if Site C is delayed and Hydro is short of power for a few years? Would Hydro be forced to spend hundreds of millions buying power on the open market, when Burrard could fill the need?

Burrard is the only large power plant in the Lower Mainland, which is the major load centre of the province. The Lower Mainland relies on long, vulnerable transmission lines for the bulk of its power. Hydro is installing additional lines but its major plants are hundreds of kilometres away on the Peace and Columbia rivers.

What happens if a severe ice storm brings down several transmission lines, as happened in Quebec in 1998? Or if a forest fire in the Interior destroys a critical 500 KV substation? Or an ice dam seriously curtails power output from a major hydro plant during the winter peak? With global warming and more frequent extreme weather phenomenon, these scenarios aren't that farfetched.

As well, due to deferred maintenance, BC Hydro's infrastructure is aging and more prone to failure than ever before. By shutting down Burrard, Hydro is gambling with the energy security of the Lower Mainland. Burrard alone could not power the whole region but it could maintain critical loads during the days or weeks required to deal with an emergency.

There is something wrong with this picture. Why is a paid-for plant - burning cheap, clean fuel, delivering firm power on demand, located in a major load centre that relies on long transmission lines - being shut down?

This poorly thought-out decision needs to be revisited. How presumptuous to think that this plant will never be needed again. Future generations may be burdened with this irreversible act, yet there is no public accountability. Taxpayers should be up in arms.

Why is this issue not being debated before the BC Utilities Commission? Is the provincial government afraid of the answer it might receive?

Martin Cavin is a Port Moody resident.