Editorial: Dams as batteries – and our on-demand lifestyle

borealis geopower geothermal power canoe reach valemount
Research site for the Canoe Reach geothermal project. Courtesy Borealis GeoPower Inc

By Korie Marshall, Editor

As a resident of Valemount, I was recently chosen to represent the area on the Columbia Basin Regional Advisory Committee. The committee was set up by the province as one response to the feedback they’ve heard on their review of the Columbia River Treaty – that residents of the Columbia Basin want more information and understanding on how our power generation and river systems are being operated and why it is that way. I think residents also want input on how the province might go forward with future negotiations with the US around the Treaty. (You can learn more about the committee here: http://blog.gov.bc.ca/columbiarivertreaty/regional-advisory-committee/)

Last week I attended my first meeting with the committee in Golden, and I was lucky enough to go on a tour of the Revelstoke Dam – my first tour of any dam ever. I still don’t agree with the province’s decision to build Site C on the Peace River, but after that tour and the committee meeting, I think I understand more why BC Hydro wants to build it.

Political people will say Site C guarantees us cheap (no, they’ll say “affordable”) energy, but that’s not the most important issue. It’s that dams guarantee us energy – because our dams are the batteries.

Batteries are something sorely missing in our current electrical system and discussion of renewable energy, especially with our current on-demand lifestyle. We want everything when we want it, not later today or two hours ago. Many renewable energy systems like wind and solar can’t guarantee power when we want it.

Most people who live off-grid have to adapt their lifestyle, often doing certain tasks when they have the electricity available, or doing without. They are also using batteries of one sort or another as well. Many of us don’t want to limit ourselves like that; we expect that the power will be there whenever we hit that switch.

When the rolling blackouts happened in the north eastern US and Ontario in 2003, it wasn’t because of a lack of electricity. It was because of a series of problems in the system and a lack of coordination between the players that meant they couldn’t correct system imbalances and overloads – for example they had nowhere to store electricity being generated when a major section of the transmission system collapsed. 50 million people were without power in eight states and Ontario for up to four days.

The operator at Revelstoke dam showed us models and described how they can quickly bring a hydro turbine up to exactly the speed they need, and then hit the breaker to connect the generator to the system. He told us that if it is the least bit slow or fast, the generator will instantaneously jolt to come to the same speed, something you don’t really want happening on a massive motor. And he says if another generator on the system goes down – like a massive lightning strike – he can feel it even before the operator of the other system knows what has happened.

It’s because it is a real-time system – electricity is generated and used exactly when it is needed. Most of us think of electricity like we think of water or heating oil that comes into our house, and is stored somewhere in a big tank before that. We think we’re paying for the drops of fluid, or the electrons we use when we turn something on. That is not how it works with electricity.

That is part of the reason BC Hydro likes smart meters, because they can actually tell when you are using power, what time of the day, and when everyone else is using it. It can maybe help people understand that it’s not electrons we’re using; it’s the service of being able to generate that electricity exactly when we need it.

The US has corridors of wind turbines now, and they can make so much power when the wind is blowing – so much power that they have to sell it at negative prices. They have to pay someone to take the electricity. Meanwhile they are still paying the owners of these wind turbines subsidies set up to encourage people to make renewable energy.

But when that wind stops, the rest of the system suddenly has to compensate. Facilities that burn fuels take a while to get up to speed. But not dams; you can turn them on and be generating electricity within seconds.

So now I understand what Minister of Agriculture Norm Letnick was talking about when he said you need dams so that you can make use of other technologies like solar and wind – you have to have something you can turn on when the sun goes down and the wind stops, and that right now is hydro. Our dams are like great big batteries.

But they are still not taking into account geothermal. Craig Dunn of Borealis Geopower says it’s called “load following” – he can build his geothermal generating system so that when BC Hydro doesn’t want the electricity (like, say, if they can get paid to take electricity from the wind turbines in the US) he doesn’t send it to them. I’m not sure what he will do with it, maybe he’ll have his own bank of batteries, or some other way to make use of electricity when it’s not needed. I’m sure BC Hydro could make a deal with Borealis that doesn’t require the sort of subsidies the US is offering.

Is it ironic that the province is building another dam on the Peace while they continue to try to address issues and concerns of affected residents on the Columbia, some 40 years after the dams were built? Or should that be a sign to us all that we seriously need to rethink the way we think about power and electricity, and our on-demand lifestyle?

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