"Winter can be harsh, especially for those not prepared, and it has felt long this year, but it is still beautiful."
“Winter can be harsh, especially for those not prepared, and it has felt long this year, but it is still beautiful.”

By: Korie Marshall

I won $1000 from the Columbia Basin Trust’s meeting here in Valemount on Sept. 24th. I can’t spend it myself; I have to choose a non-profit within the Basin to give it to. I feel a bit like CBT might have planned this as a test.

I’m involved with a lot of organizations, and there are many others I’d like to help, but deciding how to choose is difficult. I can understand why the Valemount Entertainment Society chose to do a random draw when VCTV won the I Heart Local Cable award. A thousand dollars is a lot of money by some standards, and not much by others, but what I really want to think about is who could best use $1000 right now for something they are working on? Where could $1000 do the most good?

At the end of the meeting, Kindy Gosal, Director of Special Initiatives, and Jeannette Townsend, former Mayor of Valemount and one of the CBT’s founding members, made jokes about how no one will be happy with me – for the group I give it to, it’ll be too little and for the rest, not enough; or I’ll only be on one board afterward. Jokes made in good spirit, but there is a lot to think about, and coming from people who are involved with an organization that has a lot of money to give, and a big responsibility to the public in doing so – I think they know what they are talking about. Gosal told me about a guy from Golden who won $100,000 for local hockey teams, and so many people disagreed with how he decided to spend it – it tore many of the groups apart. I can see it happening.

But why was this $1000 up for grabs in the first place? Its part of the incentive to get people to attend these meetings that CBT is currently having, though I would have gone anyway. CBT is getting to be really good at engaging citizens – kind of their mandate, since that is what the government did NOT do before they decided to build a bunch of dams and flood a bunch of our valleys. The CBT is also good at investing money, which is why they currently have about $22 million each year to spend on programs throughout the Basin. And why that will increase to $55 million each year, within about three years. They are coming up to their 20th anniversary next year, and they have been spending a lot of time evaluating what they are doing, what residents want them to do, what they could be doing better, and what they should do differently.

The money belongs to us, the residents of the Basin. It was given to the Trust by the government as a way to try to balance out some of the impacts the reservoirs have made on our society, economy and environment. It was invested wisely almost 20 years ago so that we’d have more money to use, and one of the things CBT is wondering now is – should we invest more now so that future generations have even more?

Another is – should we start looking at doing things the government is supposed to do? In the original act creating CBT, the Trust was not to do anything that would alleviate current government responsibility, but Wayne Lundeberg, Director of Planning & Evaluation and Acting Director of Community Initiatives for CBT, says that was actually repealed, though the question of whether to do it or not is still undecided. One fear is that various levels of government will withdraw services if they think they are not needed. But one reason to do it might be to show government what can – or should – be done. Another is that if we just aren’t getting the basic services we need – like maybe long-term medical care housing so that people can stay closer to home when they need more medical attention than their family and friends can give them – maybe the CBT should be helping us with those kinds of things.

These meetings are about questions like that, seeing what people across the Basin think is important, making sure CBT is in touch and in sync with what we want for our communities. There are lots of questions and possibilities.
One of the suggestions that came up at our meeting – and Gosal says they’ve heard it before, and have been thinking about it – is that CBT give less hand outs. Maybe rather than granting so much, the CBT should look more at low- and no-interest loans, or a combination of loans and grants, so that organizations have some “skin in the game” and are better stewards of the money they receive. It may help move organizations away from the culture of grant dependency, which is inherently unsustainable.

Another question is whether CBT should offer low- or no-interest loans to businesses. In many ways, helping small business start up could be a big benefit to communities, and it has even been argued that giving grants to non-profits can sometimes be unfair to businesses that they might be competing with.

The CBT is unique in the province, and the country, and Gosal says “Think big.” Part of the workshop had us sitting in groups, discussing one big thing we want to have happen, and what it would take to get there. I was at the table with Craig Dunn and Ashley Derry from Borealis Geopower, who were in Valemount that same week, still working towards getting investment to drill slim holes to prove the resource is there.

Even if they hadn’t been at the table, my response would have been the same – my “big thing” is getting geothermal power generation going. But because they were at the table, I got a good idea of what they need to make it happen. Dunn summed it up like this: it will cost $80 million to get a 15 megawatt plant set up. $40 million of that will be for the generating plant, and he says the plant manufacturer will finance that. $35 million is the equity Borealis needs to do the project, but Dunn is not worried about that amount, because everyone wants to invest in a proven resource. What the company needs is the initial $5 million to finish the exploration – actually drill the holes to verify the heat resource is there.

Dunn has told me before that part of the problem of getting investors for the exploration is that geothermal power doesn’t get the tax breaks like oil exploration does. If you drill a well for oil and it comes up dry, that is a great big tax break for whoever invests that money, but it is not available for a geothermal well that comes up cold, so investors are less likely to want to risk their money on it. A low- or no-interest loan would allow Borealis to do the drilling and show that proof.

Gosal pointed out that CBT has helped the Village with exploring what could be done with “waste heat” from a power plant, but they’ve told Borealis they don’t invest in exploration.

“Show me the proven viable option,” says Gosal.

And I get it. If the CBT is looking at it as a financial investment, they want some assurances that there will be some return. Also, it is private enterprise, and why would CBT want to invest in something to make someone money, when that person can turn around and sell out and take their profit away?

But the CBT could give communities in the basin a competitive advantage by giving businesses easier access to capital. They could do “social heavy investments” where social values play more of a role than return on the dollar. They could consider helping businesses as well as non-profits. They could take a greater role in alternative energies. This means thinking about where our money can do the most good.

As we spoke, Dunn drew a little pictogram of ways geothermal power can help our community. From the electricity itself, we could have power security and independence, a community based utility, it would give us community pride, being a first in Canada, a leader in power innovation and sustainability, it would be a community and First Nations supported project. But he says the other part, the direct heat that is left over is even better. It can be used in greenhouses that could support community food security, the timber industry, like a pellet plant or specialized manufacturing, commercial and district heating which can lower costs and provide incentive for businesses, recreation and spa/tourism opportunities. There is so much potential. All of that is why I think spending our money to prove the resource under our feet would be a really good investment.

Dunn says Borealis doesn’t want to be running a power plant, something they’ve been saying since they first presented their idea to residents of Valemount. They are more interested in developing geothermal power, and then moving on to prove it in other parts of the country. There has already been local talk of starting a society, like the ski society, to lobby and support geothermal power here, but I think the last thing we need is another non-profit here in Valemount – unless it could be to run our own power utility. Wouldn’t that be something?

And if you are wondering, I still haven’t decided where to put that $1000, but I have an idea.