Metro Vancouver support for Burrard Thermal comes with a catch

Vancouver directors insist natural gas power plant that serves as energy backup must switch to green fuel source

Metro Vancouver has joined a push to keep the Burrard Thermal power station on standby as a backup electricity source for the Lower Mainland, but with a proviso that it burn a renewable energy source in the future instead of natural gas.

Regional district directors voted Friday on the issue after Vancouver directors pushed through a contentious amendment requiring the shift away from fossil fuel use as a measure to help meet climate change goals.

Vancouver Coun. Raymond Louie said the goal of keeping Burrard Thermal as a backup in case a catastrophe cuts off hydroelectric power to the region must also be balanced against the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions over the long term.

“There’s no way to meet these goals without taking action,” he said.

Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew questioned what renewable fuel source could feasibly power the plant, adding that burning wood pellets or wood waste might mean worse air pollution in the region’s airshed compared to natural gas.

BC Hydro officials have defended the decision to close the plant, saying it’s almost never used, would require costly upgrades to make it more efficient, and that the completion soon of another power line from Interior dams will make it even less likely to be needed in the future.

Burrard Thermal can generate enough electricity to power 700,000 homes, or nine per cent of the province’s generating capacity.

Scrapping the 50-year-old plant is expected to save $14 million a year in operating costs and avoid a $400-million upgrade that would otherwise be needed.

Some Metro directors warned a renewable energy requirement would greatly increase the cost of the plant upgrade, making its survival less likely.

“I think we’ve effectively killed the Burrard Thermal plant,” Richmond Coun. Harold Steves said.

He opposed the Vancouver amendment, adding he’d prefer to see Burrard Thermal run full-time on natural gas and potentially help BC Hydro avoid building the $8.8-billion Site C hydroelectric dam that will flood more farmland in northeastern B.C.

“We have an opportunity here to save the Peace River farmland by operating Burrard Thermal instead of flooding the Peace,” he said. “We need food security in this province and if it means burning natural gas, so be it.”

Steves said Peace farmland will no longer be able to sequester carbon once it’s flooded, adding Vancouver directors should consider factors like that in gauging the climate impacts of the choice.

“For once I think the province is right,” Steves said. “Natural gas is cleaner  than the other fuels. It’s cleaner than burning pellets and its cleaner than burning biofuel when you have to lose farmland to do it.”

The City of Port Moody, which stands to lose property tax grants if the plant is dismantled, has argued the transmission lines that bring power from the Interior remain vulnerable to being knocked out by ice storms, flash floods, forest fires, earthquakes or sabotage.

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