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By: Korie Marshall

The recent heavy snowfall and cold snap in the Robson Valley has many residents thinking about the need for better and faster emergency planning, especially for elderly and vulnerable residents. But I think we should also see it as a chance to change how we think about things, and I think BC Hydro should listen up.

Bob Gammer, spokesperson for BC Hydro told the Goat on Dec. 9th that severe weather from Nov. 27th to the 29th challenged crews and tested equipment, resulting in lengthy power outages for some residents. He said there were multiple faults, both inside and outside the islanded zone that the McBride’s backup diesel generator serves, which prevented the system from providing power to the community. The heavy snowfall led to delays in response by the line crews to get the faults fixed. BC Hydro suspects the long power outage and cold conditions then led to the failure of the batteries in the re-closers – the bits that keep the system islanded, so that the generators aren’t overloaded. Gammer says the diesel engines themselves were working during the shorter outages on both Sunday and Monday that week, but the control system would not allow them to provide electricity without the safety features – those re-closers – working. He says the batteries have now been replaced.

But here is the thing, and I don’t consider this to be BC Hydro’s fault – We may not know if it works until the power goes out again. Any electrical system is complex, and I’ve been involved in disaster recovery exercises in a data centre, where you pretend things go wrong and see if your backup systems work. It almost always leads to more questions, to scenarios of “what if?” The reality is you have to make a decision about how much you want to spend to be covered in the case of an emergency.

I know people wanted backup power in McBride. There are many in Valemount that say there should be one here as well, though it should be obvious from that week that Valemount doesn’t get hit as badly as McBride, at least not within the village boundaries.

But nothing is infallible. A hydro generating station had to be shut down on Nov. 28th, because boom logs on the reservoir broke apart. There was concern for both the Keenleyside Dam and the generating station owned by Columbia Power Corporation on the Arrow Lakes, and both the dam and the generators were shut down for a period of time.

On Dec. 1st, BC Hydro issued a statement about the near record-breaking electricity use in the province due to the cold snap. Electricity demand increased to 9,581 megawatts between 5 and 6 PM on Monday night – nearly 1,000 megawatts higher that the peak the Monday before. The record set in November 2006 of 10,113 megawatts remains in place, but they expected demand to stay higher than normal until temperatures increased later in the week.

Those peaks are really important. That is when the most power needs to be generated, when the most systems need to be operational, and that is why systems like Mica are only used a small portion of the day. BC Hydro says that one quarter of the province’s power comes from Mica, Revelstoke and the Arrow Lakes stations, and they are mostly used during those peak hours of the day. The fifth generator at Mica is due to come online by the end of this year, with the sixth generator due to start up in 2015. But what if Mica had to be shut down unexpectedly? How would the province get power during those peak suppertime hours?

Generators and batteries – whether for whole communities or for your own house – are useful to some degree, so long as you know they work. But they are expensive, and they are not the whole answer.

Part of the answer is being more self-sufficient. I’ve heard more stories of how people survived the cold and looked after elderly neighbours, using candles and warm ashes to keep pipes from freezing – really ingenious ideas that are worth sharing. And it is definitely worth coming up with plans and sorting out warm places, because things are going to happen. But any good emergency planner will tell you – your plan needs to be flexible, you need to be able to adapt to changing conditions.

BC Hydro needs to learn that as well. Their website says “It’s about water: 90 per cent of BC Hydro’s power generation is hydroelectric.” But we know that many of the small hydroelectric projects, like Hystad Creek and the up-coming Castle Creek projects can only help when the water is running, usually spring and summer. Some of them might be really good, and be able to help out for up to seven months out of a year. But that still leaves the coldest part of the year, and a lot of maintenance and planning to get electricity from the reservoirs to extremely diverse areas of BC – using 75,000 kilometers of power lines and enough wire to encircle the world twice, according to BC Hydro’s website.

What if it wasn’t just about water? What if, instead of approving Site C – another hydro electric project that seems to be gaining more and more opposition from First Nations, environmentalists, communities like Hudson’s Hope (which is asking for a one year moratorium on the decision on Site C) and many others – BC Hydro starts thinking about other ways to generate electricity? What if they start considering a bunch of smaller year-round projects, closer to where the power is needed?

When Barriere burned in 2003 and the Robson Valley was without power for weeks, they tried to get the Hystad Creek station to power Valemount, but it hadn’t been designed that way – it could only feed power into the grid, not back to the Village. BC Hydro has since changed their thinking on that, and the Castle Creek project is being built so that it can power McBride if it’s needed. If BC Hydro can change their minds about that, I have to believe they can change their minds about Site C too.

BC Hydro is good at what it does, but we need it to listen to the people – we are not just customers, we are the citizens, and BC Hydro is a Crown corporation that is supposed to be serving us. It needs to listen to us and realize when it is time for change.