The province’s plan to shut down the rarely used Burrard Thermal natural gas-fired power plant is under renewed fire from critics who say it provides a crucial emergency backup supply of electricity for the Lower Mainland.
The City of Port Moody, which hosts the plant, says the planned closure in 2016 will put the region at greater risk of power interruption if transmission lines from Interior hydroelectric stations are knocked out.
It issued a report last month that warns the lines are vulnerable to ice storms, flash floods, forest fires, earthquakes and sabotage.
“We’ve seen that in bad weather those lines can come down,” Port Moody Mayor Mike Clay said. “Any interruption of that service will leave the entire Lower Mainland without a fallback.”
Burrard Thermal is capable of generating 900 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 700,000 homes or about nine per cent of BC Hydro’s capacity.
But the province says the 50-year-old plant is inefficient and about $14 million a year would be saved by scrapping it. The plant is almost never used but Clay contends it’s still an important safety net.
“That’s a small price to pay for the integrity of the power grid in Metro Vancouver,” he said.
BC Hydro deputy CEO Chris O’Riley said a new power transmission line is being completed to the Lower Mainland from the Interior, meaning five lines instead of four will soon deliver B.C. power to the region. Another two lines can import power from the U.S.
“On the coldest day of the year we will only need four of those seven lines in place to meet the load here,” O’Riley said.
He acknowledged it may not always be possible to buy U.S. power on the spot market.
But he said it would take a combination of U.S. power being suddenly unavailable and not one but two B.C. power lines failing – all on the coldest day of the winter – before a backup power station might prove useful.
“Yes, you can create scenarios where this would go bad and that would go bad,” O’Riley said. “But it’s hard to justify an argument where all those things happen at the same time.”
The big cost of keeping Burrard Thermal open is the roughly $400 million it would take to upgrade its 1960s-era gas conversion technology for ongoing use, he added.
“It’s really a substantial rebuild of the plant that’s required.”
Significant upgrades were performed in the 1990s, mainly to improve emissions, but O’Riley said pollution from the plant remained a significant environmental issue in the early 2000s.
“There was a lot of concern in the Fraser Valley and locally about the level of emissions, even with the investments that had gone into it.”
Hydro would continue to use part of the Burrard Thermal property to adjust the voltage of incoming electricity even after the generating station is dismantled.
It’s seeking potential new users for the rest of the property, which offers a port, dock facilities and plenty of natural gas and electricity.
Asked if a liquefied natural gas plant is a possibility, O’Riley said no LNG proposals have been received.
“But there’s lots of things you could do there,” he said. “It’s an interesting site.”
Port Moody stands to lose $1.3 million a year in property tax grants – about four per cent of its tax base – but that blow could be eased if a new industry moves in.