In four years as a Refrigeration Apprentice I learned that it takes a lot of energy to convert a gas into to a liquid. Which is why I did a double-take when I read that the BC government has endorsed three liquified natural gas (LNG) plants near Kitimat. In a province that has grown in leaps in population and energy consumption, I thought “Wow, that’s a lot of energy, where will it come from?”
BC’s wonderfully ludicrous politics makes for excellent dinnertime conversation. One of my favorite anecdotes is about a bunch of dam happy BC Hydro engineers who lost their jobs in the early 1980s because BC’s load forecast flattened. Plans for a Site C dam were shelved simply because we had overdosed on capital-intensive projects and never had to give a second thought to energy consumption.
Fast forward 30 years, BC’s population has grown by a few million, average home has grown from 1400 sq ft to 2700 sq ft, and I suspect the number of electrical outlets in the average home has more than doubled. Items once reserved for elites are now everywhere, from residential hot tubs to energy-vamping home theatre systems. Suddenly in the 2000′s, the energy picture looks different: BC Hydro steps up “Power Smart” conservation campaigns, proposes 10% per year rate hikes, and claims that infrastructure needs to be upgraded to accommodate increased demand. We’re indoctrinated with the idea that conservation and retrofitting is considerably cheaper (and more environmentally friendly) than developing new energy sources. Not a bad strategy.
Jump forward a few more years to 2008: Gordon Campbell is elected to a second term and makes it clear that BC will lead the world in reducing GHG emissions, signing deals with Washington, Oregon and Arnold Schwartzenegger to create a “Green Corridor”. Ambitious provincial targets are set to achieve 93% clean energy production and 33% reduction in GHG emissions by 2020 (80% reductions by 2050!) Neat!
So in a time of unprecedented conservation, I was surprised when I found out that BC was wholeheartedly buying into the LNG movement. Not that I disagree with it – it sounds pretty cool actually.
We don’t have to look far for the energy to drive these projects after all. The plan to develop Site C (although still controversial and under review) was announced before Campbell was shooed from Office (he was pretty crafty in maneuvering the Climate Action Plan and allowing for economic development – I wouldn’t want to play chess against him). Under traditional policy, BC is required to be energy-self sufficient when its dams are at “critical low” levels – enough cushion to weather 3 consecutive years of drought. On Feb. 3rd 2012, however, new Liberal Premier Christy Clarke announced a significant change: BC dams would now only have to ensure self-sufficiency at “average” water levels. In doing this, she reduced the need to build new generation projects and freed the necessary capacity for LNG. We’ve essentially had free energy sitting around all along and we’ve been hedging it based on some apocalyptic scenario… like Global Warming or something.
Thankfully people much smarter than me make sure that our energy supply (and water supply) is protected. Not to mention the slap and tickle of overlapping natural gas, electricity and rival energy markets that buttress LNG production (markets are never wrong.) Unforeseen environmental considerations aside, this seems to me like a fairly intelligent investment in BC’s future. Premier Clarke is quoted as saying, “It is an opportunity to establish an entirely new industry in British Columbia. This isn’t something that happens every day and it’s not something that even happens every decade,” and I’m tempted to agree.
Still, in years when BC drops “below average”, we may need to import dirty electricity from Alberta. Coal is a filthy energy source, far worse than oil sands bitumen or natural gas, and if BC’s water dries up anywhere similar to the Colorado River, we can kiss our 93% clean energy target goodbye.
So here we stand. I still think I’m behind Clarke on this and when the NDP win the next election, I hope they back LNG too. Real environmental solutions require the ability to make major energy shifts. And although the Energy Industry likely doesn’t produce a fraction of the jobs that people think it does, the jobs it does produce are intelligent and high-paying. LNG also creates nice royalties that pay for cool things like health care and education. See you soon, Alberta and Saskatchewan!
Compared to hydroelectricity, burning natural gas may not seem like a step forward, but considering that hydro reserves are limited and the rest of the world is burning coal, LNG may save countless tonnes of CO2 emissions. LNG may prove an absolute environmental disaster for other reasons, but again, hopefully there are smarter people than me working on this. Fracking is already happening and we won’t be the only ones to head down this fracking path; hopefully BC can establish “Best Practices” for the rest of the world to follow.
All-in-all, LNG may have benefits worth the risk. Some suggest that developing the natural gas economy could eventually lead to a hydrogen economy as both energy sources will likely require similar infrastructure.
Photo courtesy of Steve Punter