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Watts Happening?

by Don Pettit for Peace Energy Cooperative www.peaceenergy.ca ph 250-782-3882

Is Site C a clean energy project? -Part 2

Large hydroelectric dam reservoirs have serious on-going environmental impacts: the flooding of critical wildlife river valley habitat, mercury poisoning of the local ecosystem (including people) and significant greenhouse gas emissions from flooded vegetation. Shown above is the western Williston Lake reservoir of the WAC Bennett Dam, showing how critical wilderness river valleys were flooded.

he latest mega-dam on the Peace River, Site C, is being promoted as a clean energy project. But what is clean energy, anyway? Every energy source produces a certain amount of pollution during the construction of its infrastructure, from coal-fired plants and hydro dams to solar panels and wind turbines. Comparing energy sources on this basis is complex and difficult. To make things simple, lets define clean energy as energy that, WHILE IT IS BEING PRODUCED, creates no pollution. No fossil fuel, by this definition, can be clean. Likewise, nuclear reactors burn nuclear fuel and generate radioactive pollution during operation definitely not clean. Solar power, wind power, geothermal power and tidal power, on the other hand, use up and burn nothing when they are producing energy, so no

pollution is created. By this simplest definition, they make truly clean energy. That leaves hydroelectric power. Its renewable (natural forces constantly replenish the energy source), so its potentially very clean. But is it? TYPES OF HYDRO POWER There are three common types of hydropower. In order of environmental impact, least to worst, they are: direct extraction of power by simply inserting a generator into a river flow; run-of-river, which diverts a portion of the river flow, runs it down a pipe to create head or thrust, through a turbine and then back into the river; and hydro dams, that create head by damming the river and collecting the water to raise its level. Hydro dams are the most destructive because

they literally destroy the flooded area. And since the flooded area is pretty well always a valley, and valleys are usually highly productive and important ecological zones (riparian areas), the impact to the surrounding ecosystem is large. This is certainly the case with Site C. The 100 kmlong, 5300 hectare section of the Peace River valley slated for flooding is a stunningly beautiful, spectacularly rich riparian area with a unique ecosystem. Compared to its original fecundity, the proposed dams reservoir will be a dead zone, an effect well documented by studies of existing dam reservoirs. But all this aside, is the hydropower created by a large dam clean by my earlier definition? Is pollution produced during operation? Proponents will say no, but if we look a little deeper . . . MERCURY A PROBLEM Most plants contain the highly toxic heavy metal mercury, but happily, nature has locked this mercury into a molecular form that passes harmlessly through an ecosystem and its member species. Fish can eat their flies, deer and moose can graze and you can eat your spinach without being poisoned by mercury. When plant material is buried under water, however, this mercury undergoes a chemical change that slowly releases it in a bio-available form. This mercury contaminates the reservoir and river system downstream for many decades. Once released in this from, mercury, like other heavy metals, has the nasty habit of bio-

accumulating, increasing in concentration as it moves up the food chain. A mayfly might have only the tiniest bit of mercury in it, but if a fish eats one thousand mayflies, that mercury accumulates in the fish by a factor of one thousand. If a raptor, a bear or a human eats one hundred fish, their levels of mercury have now increased to 100,000 times that of the original mayfly! This is why we have a fish consumption advisory on the Peace River: mercury from the existing dams has already contaminated the surrounding area and made fish from the river a hazard to eat. Another dam, with its huge flooded reservoir, will only make things worse. GREENHOUSE GASES TOO! A vibrant natural ecosystem like the Peace River valley absorbs huge amounts of climate-change producing carbon from the atmosphere and safely tucks it away as biomass. Much of this biomass is in the form of rich river valley soils, accumulated over thousands of years. When an ecosystem is flooded, this carbon sequestration ends abruptly, then reverses. Under water, the stored carbon is released, mostly as the powerful greenhouse gas methane. Considering the huge area to be flooded, Site C is neither climatefriendly nor carbon-neutral. So does Site C produce clean energy, even by my simple definition of no pollution during production? Nope! There are better ways to make electricity.

Watts Happening? Quick Fact:


WIND POWER COMPETING WITH COAL: wind turbine prices have fallen 26 percent since 2009, so that now the levelized cost of wind power is just 5.5 percent higher than that of coal. In Iowa, wind power is now the cheapest form of power available. If Congress were to remove all subsidies from every energy source, the wind industry can compete on its own, the CEO of the American Wind Energy Associationa said.