In light of Sarita project rejection, province promises review of energy procurement process

Shayne Morrow, December 21, 2017

The Sarita River Hydropower Project is designed to generate more electricity than what the nearby communities of Anacla and Bamfield would need, bringing the Huu-ay-aht First Nations revenue by flowing surplus power into the BC Hydro grid. (Barkley Project Group photo)

Vancouver Island — 

On Dec. 11, BC Hydro advised Huu-ay-aht First Nation Councillor Trevor Cootes that it would not proceed with an application for an Electricity Purchase Agreement for a proposed Sarita River mini-hydro project. That same day, the province announced it would go forward with the controversial Site C mega-project.

Later that week, the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources contacted Ha-Shilth-Sa to advise that a review of energy procurement, including the Standing Offer Program, would be part of “a comprehensive review of BC Hydro.”

“We expect the review of BC Hydro will commence in the New Year now that a decision has been made on Site C,” wrote Media Relations spokesperson Suntanu Dalal. “In the meantime, the ministry is working with BC Hydro to assess the projects already in the Standing Offer Program, including the proposal from the Huu-ay-aht First Nations. We anticipate the assessment of existing projects will be completed by early in the New Year.”

The ministry release appears to raise the possibility that the Sarita River project, a joint proposal by Huu-ay-aht and Nanaimo-based Barkley Project Group, is still in play.

Peter Ramsden is the project manager for the Sarita River Hydropower Project. Barkley Project Group is currently working on First Nations power project proposals on Vancouver Island and the B.C. central and north coast, he explained. Ha-Shilth-Sa contacted Ramsden for some background on the Sarita project.

Ramsden said in Nuu-chah-nulth territory, the Tla-o-qui-aht project on Winter Creek is nearing completion, while a Hesquiaht project for the Ahtaapq Creek, like Huu-ay-aht’s Sarita project, is still in the proposal stage. There is currently great interest among BC First Nations to develop these revenue-generators in their traditional territories, he said.

"In most cases, they approach us," Ramsden explained. "We provide the technical expertise, rather than any lobbying. We help the nation approach BC Hydro, and then execute construction in the best possible way."

Each mini-hydro project is unique, because the terrain and water capacities are so variable. The Barkley Project Group has tailored a power project to fit the Sarita River layout and stream flow, he said.

"We take water just below Sarita Lake. One of our constraints is not to impact the lake in any way. So no changes in the level of the lake – whatsoever," he said. "So we are going to create a small head pond just below a natural weir at the bottom end of the lake."

From the head pond, water will flow into a closed penstock (basically, a really big pipe) connected to a Kaplan single turbine generator. Generating capacity is determined by the volume of water in the penstock and the vertical drop to the powerhouse. According to the blueprint, the water would flow a linear distance of 680 metres, with a vertical drop of 37 metres, generating 5.2 megawatts at peak capacity.

Ramsden noted that 37 metres is not a large drop (or head) compared to other run-of-river projects such as China Creek/Upnit Power (66 metres).

"That's where the flow-rate value comes in. We're going to take a large flow-rate of 15.5 cubic metres per second – that's where the power comes in.  We take a large flow and a low head, and we have a single turbine in the powerhouse. And it's the style of turbine that can really generate a decent amount of power from that amount of water," he explained, adding, "fifteen and a half meters per second is a ton of water."

Ramsden said that, as in any run-of-river proposal, the project is designed to avoid interrupting fish-flows or causing damage to local wildlife. Proponents are required to put together a comprehensive environmental assessment. When water levels are low, the powerhouse is capable of running at a reduced level.

"One of the key constraints for us is that we have to leave a sufficient amount of water for everything in the river to survive (known as In-stream Flow Release, or IFR). You only operate when there is sufficient flow in the river," he said. "You can generate from zero per cent to 100 per cent. So if there is IFR plus 10 per cent capacity, we can [generate] at 10 per cent.

"So there are a lot of times during the year when we would generate no electricity. There are times when we can turn our turbine on just a little bit."

With peak generation of 5.2 MW, the Sarita powerhouse would produce far more electricity than would be consumed in Anacla and Bamfield. That surplus power would flow onto the BC Hydro grid, generating extra revenue for the proponents. Currently, when there is a break in the single hydro line running from Port Alberni, both communities are blacked out. Local power generation means Anacla and Bamfield would be far less susceptible to power outages.

"One of the key components in this project is 'islanding.' The ability to 'island' that whole load out there – anything that is connected to Bamfield and Anacla system – this project is intended to be able to start up without a connection to the grid,” said Ramsden. “So if there is a tree that falls on the line connected to the main grid, this plant is able to start up and power Bamfield and Anacla until the line is restored."

In that event, Ramsden explained, the flow rate into the turbine would be drawn down to provide only the power required locally. With power flowing into the main Hydro grid, the plant would produce the maximum electrical output based on the volume of available water.

Ramsden said the Sarita proposal has the potential to become a "legacy" project.

"We have a 40-year design-line for these projects, but with proper maintenance, they could be around much longer than that," he said.

The key is to purchase the highest-quality components that the projected revenues can afford, Ramsden explained.

"So in most cases, unless somebody is really trying to 'cheap out,' you get a turbine that is of sufficient quality that, with proper maintenance, there would only be certain bits and pieces that would have to be updated over that 40-year period."

Dalal said her ministry understands the importance of support from local communities and First Nations in creating small green-energy projects.

“As a component of the comprehensive review of BC Hydro, the province and BC Hydro will consider the development of a new procurement stream for smaller-scale renewable-electricity projects where indigenous nations are proponents or partners to create local employment and commercial opportunities throughout B.C., as well as environmental benefits with the replacement of diesel or fossil fuel-based energy installations,” she concluded.