Run river run:

🕔Aug 04, 2010

The first challenge is defining it.

Micro-hydro, small hydro, independent power producers (IPPs), run-of-river: innocuous-sounding and somewhat overlapping terms for the wave of energy generation proposed—and touted by proponents as green—for BC’s swift-moving waterways.

In simple terms, they all refer to privately owned projects selling power to BC Hydro that’s generated by diverting water through a tunnel, or penstock, past a turbine power generator, and then returned to the river. Unlike dams, run-of-river projects don’t hold water, but maintain relatively normal flows. As a renewable resource, they are largely considered low-impact.

The recent run on run-of-river projects has pitted traditional bedfellows—such as renewable-energy producers, environmental groups and recreationalists—against one another in the debate over what defines clean energy and what we’re willing to sacrifice to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.

“It’s one of these terms that’s a little bit slippery, because it’s often referred to as micro-hydro, but some of the run-of-river projects are actually quite large,” says Watershed Watch Salmon Society ecologist Aaron Hill. Hill defines it as a “death-by-a-thousand-cuts free-for-all.”

Originally from Terrace, Hill works with Watershed Watch in southern BC, where run-of-river projects—most still in the application stages—are densely clustered around the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and the Rockies. He says there are currently over 300 water-licence applications in the southwest corner of the province alone.

In part, this is due to proximity to urban areas. Hill adds that demand from US markets is driving the power surge—and the trend is moving northward.

“Right now there are 27 water-licence applications in the Skeena watershed,” Hill says, along with a high number of proposals for the Prince Rupert, Kitimat and Nass Valley areas. The proposed Northwest Transmission Line (NTL) would also provide the means to sell power to BC Hydro. “We’re seeing more and more water-licence applications spring up along the proposed Northwest Transmission Line route. That’s really where I think the most development’s likely to occur.”

Spawning discontent
The gold-rush-style race to buy up water licences for BC’s rivers accelerated in 2002 when the BC Energy Plan promoted independent energy sources and the province streamlined licence applications by raising the requirement threshold for an environmental assessment from 20- to 50-megawatt projects. Not surprisingly, there was a rush on projects coming in at 49 megawatts.

BC Hydro considers “micro” hydro as projects with an installed capacity of less than two megawatts. “Small” hydro developments have installed capacities of between two and 50 megawatts. One megawatt of installed capacity will supply enough power for about 550 homes, according to BC’s Ministry of Environment.

BC Hydro’s Handbook for Developing Micro Hydro in British Columbia identifies more than 600 potential small hydro and micro-hydro sites across the province.

“There’s a lot of legitimate criticism about the way all the hydro-power development in BC has been privatized, (and) the way in which it’s been done without many checks and balances,” Hill says. “The upshot of that is that it’s provided some economic opportunities for First Nations.”

In Hartley Bay, the Gitga’at First Nation is moving ahead with a two-megawatt run-of-river project that would remove the community’s need for generators, which currently burn half a million litres of diesel fuel annually. It would be entirely owned by the nation.

The project would be implemented above a salmon barrier, creating little or no additional impact to the Gabion River’s fish-bearing qualities, Hill says. Conversely, an approved project at fish-bearing Sedan Creek, which comes into the Skeena River just downstream of Kitwanga, could impact spawning salmon.

With the Skeena experiencing drastically low salmon returns last year, the issue of cumulative effects arises. Hill notes that while one run-of-river project might not carry significant impacts, projects like the NTL could bring an onslaught of development with significant overall impacts. “Suddenly it’s quite a significant impact and nobody’s looking at the big picture,” he says. “There’s plenty of energy to power the stuff that’s going on up north already. The energy that’s being demanded right now is likely to go to powering new mines in northern BC and powering electrification of natural gas development in northeast BC.”

Prime paddler habitat
Because projects can divert stream flows for kilometres at a time, there can be significant impacts to recreation, with run-of-river favouring the same conditions as whitewater kayers: steep and fast-flowing.

Jupiter MacDonald is the operations manager for the Terrace-based rafting company Skeena Valley Expeditions and a volunteer with North West Watch, a concerned citizens group. With Terrace recently rated the number one community for creek boating by Rapid magazine, the local paddling community is keeping a keen eye on its prized rivers.

“These aren’t little Mom-and-Pop green-energy get-a-community-off-the-grid kind of projects,” MacDonald says. “The message is green and good but in actuality we’re just siphoning off our hydro resources to become a battery for North America.”

East Boulder Creek, between Smithers and Hazelton, is one “prime” kayaking creek that has been approved for a small hydro project. While MacDonald says the proponent is willing to work with local kayakers, the project has yet to get off the ground.
He adds that run-of-river and river-running don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
“It could work out pretty well if (power companies) could provide better access and maintain certain water levels. But there’s no incentive. There’s no reason for them to do that, to go out of their way, to accommodate recreationalists. There’s no grassroots-up mentality,” MacDonald says.

“The paddling community is pretty small, but it’s a growing community up here and I think we’ve got to do what we can do to protect that resource.”

Powering recreation
A Northwest Community College research project indicates that run-of-river power production and recreation can exist harmoniously. NWCC instructor Gordon Weary assigned his Terrace-based hydrology and environment and society classes to determine the feasibility of a run-of-river project on Shames Creek. If the project went ahead, it could power the nearby ski hill, which struggles with expensive diesel-fuel bills.

“If you did a smaller run-of-river on Shames, where most of that power in the winter went to the ski hill and then in the summer you tie it into the grid so you can make revenue that way—it seems incredibly feasible,” says Weary, adding that data verification, a comprehensive fish study and additional First Nations consultation would have to be done before a project went ahead.

“Depending on what type of run-of-the-river project you put in there, you could make it work pretty well for kayakers. It’s a Class 5 creek, so there are only a handful of people that run it and they only run it at high water,” he says. “It has the capacity to generate 15 megawatts, that river, and the ski hill needs half a megawatt. Logistically, you could make it a two- to five-megawatt project.”

Weary was told by consultants that his class undertook more comprehensive research than many projects currently going ahead. He speculates that the current approval structure might be backwards: Once a company has invested in looking at economic feasibility, it might be reluctant to consider social, environmental or recreational concerns.

Small hydro, micro-hydro, run-of-river and IPPs, if done properly, could define BC as the green-energy powerhouse the provincial government has pledged to become. But if implemented in excess without proper consultation, they could spell a drastic downturn in the North’s vital fishing and recreation opportunities.

Go to for more information, and to see a map showing all the applications, approvals and functioning IPP projects in the province.