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Wind Power or Site C Dam: What Makes Cents?

Over the next twenty years, BC Hydro has forecasted that our energy needs will increase by about 40% as a consequence of both population and economic growth. To meet this growing electricity demand, BC Hydro has proposed to build the Site C dam on the Peace River near Fort St. John (see Figures 1–3). Here I explore whether or not there are better ways from an economic, social and environmental perspective  to meet our future power needs.

The Site C dam

Upon completion, this dam would produce 1,100 MW (megawatts, i.e. millions of Watts) of power capacity and up to 5,100 GWh (gigawatt hours, i.e. billions of watt hours) of electricity each year. According to BC Hydro, this is enough electricity to power about 450,000 homes.

The price tag for the construction of the Site C dam was estimated in 2011 to be 7.9 billion dollars. Assuming a real discount rate (accounting for inflation) of between 5.5% and 6%, BC Hydro estimates that Site C would produce electricity for a cost of between 8.7¢ and 9.5¢ per kWh (kilowatt hour). At present, BC Hydro residential customers are charged 6.9¢ per kWh for their first 1,350 KWh of electricity usage over a two-month billing period and 10.34¢ per kWh after that.

The Potential for Wind Power

Currently only about 1.5% of BC’s electricity production is supplied by wind energy (see Table 1). With British Columbia’s mountainous terrain and coastal boundary, the potential for both onshore and offshore wind power production is enormous. The Canadian Wind Energy Association and the BC Hydro Integrated Resource Plan 2013 indicate that 5,100 GWh of wind generated electricity could be produced in British Columbia for about the same price as the electricity to be produced by the Site C dam. And this despite the fact that all costs (including land acquisition costs) incurred to date by BC Hydro with respect to the Site C project are not counted in their estimate for future construction costs. The potential scalability of Site C is minimal; the potential scalability of wind energy is very large.


% wind


% wind



South Dakota












Nova Scotia




British Columbia


European Union


United States



 Table 1: Percentage of electricity supply provided by wind for a number of jurisdictions. Source: Wind energy in British Columbia, Canadian Wind Energy Association presentation by Nicholas Heap, September 20, 2013.

The minimal production of wind power in British Columbia compared to other jurisdictions (Table 1) is particularly surprising in light of the fact that BC is the home of a number of existing large-scale hydro projects. These include, but are not limited to, the W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon dams already on the Peace River and the Mica, Duncan, Keenleyside, Revelstoke and Seven Mile dams on the Columbia River system. Hydro reservoirs are ideally suited for coupling with wind power generation to stabilize base-load supply. That is, when the wind is not blowing, hydro is used; when the wind is blowing, the reservoirs refill and hydropower is not used. In fact, hydro dams act just like rechargeable batteries with wind providing the renewable recharge to the battery system. And British Columbia is one of the few places in the world that can take advantage of such reservoirs as wind power is introduced into the grid.Given that wind power can easily be introduced into British Columbia at the same, or even lower, price than equivalent power from the Site C dam, we should ask if there are any other reasons that would favour Site C over wind for the production of power to meet BC energy needs. I can think of none. In fact, I can think of a number of reasons why wind power should be considered over Site C to produce the equivalent 5,100 GWh per year of electrical power:

  1. The construction of the Site C dam will flood 6,427 acres of Class 1 & 2 agricultural land (a total of 15,985 acres ofClass 1-7 agricultural land). Wind power sites would not affect agricultural land. In fact, the Peace River valley contains the only Class 1 agricultural land north of Quesnel.
  2. Key regions in the archive of British Columbia history will be flooded. The Peace River has been designated as a BC Heritage River. It was, in fact, traversed by the explorers Alexander MacKenzie, John Finlay, Simon Fraser, John Stuart, A.R. MacLeod and David Thompson (and others) in their early ventures during the 17th and 18th century. Rocky Mountain Fort, thought to be the first trading post established in British Columbia (by John Finlay in 1794) as well as Rocky Mountain Portage House (across the river from Hudson Hope and established by John Finlay and Simon Fraser in 1805) are both located in the valley.
  3. Job creation associated with wind power is province-wide. Job creation associated with the Site C dam is constrained to one region.
  4. The risk of any cost overruns associated with the construction of the Site C dam is borne by the taxpayer. The risk of any cost overruns associated with the construction wind farms is borne by industry. This is important as it limits any risk to the taxpayer.
  5. The installation of wind farms can be done in partnership with First Nations who would benefit from both local jobs as well as revenue from the installed facilities. In contrast, the affected Treaty 8 Tribal Association has already expressed a number of serious concerns regarding the Site C dam proposal.
  6. It would take much longer to complete the Site C dam project than it would to install wind farms. In addition, wind power is scalable where as the Site C dam is not.
  7. Wind farms are distributed and so can be located close to where the energy is needed thereby reducing energy loss during transmission.

To summarize, it is clear to me that the development of the Site C project makes little sense. For the same, or even lower cost, we could develop a similar capacity for wind-power in British Columbia. And the co-benefits of choosing wind power over the Site C project are profound.

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  • Donna Young Young
    commented 2016-03-28 17:13:50 -0700
    Why not spend the 7 Billion dollars to put Solar Panels on the 450,000 homes in BC and have them hooked up into BC Hydro’s Electrical Grid? This can be done on incentive environment grants. The unused power can be credit to the home accounts.
  • Beverly Anderson
    commented 2014-10-26 22:51:56 -0700
    thank you for this plain talk explanation, Professor Weaver. We all need to get informed and affect change in the public – in consumption, need and greed for dirty poluting energy.
  • BC Green Party
    commented 2013-11-20 15:29:04 -0800
    Hello everyone, Thank you for your comments, question and discussion. Please visit Andrew Weaver’s Constituency website for more information: http://www.andrewweavermla.ca/
  • Don Barthel
    commented 2013-11-11 10:56:18 -0800
    Bill: Yes, you’re right, we need to promote conservation, both in residential and industrial use. But the evidence is coming in from other jurisdictions, especially Europe, wind power is the most economically practical renewable alternative for hydro in our latitude if we have already picked the low hanging fruit of conservation.

    Ron: Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder! Last year found me driving past a farm in Oregon intermixed with giant wind turbines turning in unison and that did not look ugly at all. Dynamic, quiet, sentinels on the landscape looked very serene. Much better than flooding that farmland behind a dam. I like your other points though.
  • Kathleen Masse
    commented 2013-11-11 10:38:31 -0800
    I am not objecting to wind power per se. What I object to is jumping to the conclusion that it is the best alternative to Site C. There are many alternative energy systems including geo-thermal, tidal, solar,…..and the list goes on. And what about conservation? Do we accept that we need to meet this %40 increase in load? Are there strategies to reduce our consumption? The Green Party is committed to evidence based decision making and I objected to the above article because I feel it reaches a conclusion without adequate evidence.
  • Ron Annett
    commented 2013-11-11 09:36:01 -0800
    1. Why not propose a radio interview concerning wind power sites versus Site-C hydro electricity? Also create or suggest to a documentary news type tv program a video on the subject?
    2. Since people are aware wind turbines drive people crazy if they’re too close to habitations, make sure you stress that they’ll be well away from wherever people live.
    3. Since they’re ugly en masse, stress that they can be built on/near existing hydro-electric dam sites.
    4. Promote the jobs and money angle: That they’ll provide more jobs and province-wide, not to mention employ Natives on their land. (Better get the Natives on-side first.)
    5. Whomever turbines would affect positively, like putting them to work, inform them of the opportunity and get them motivated to promote them, including writing to PM’s, media outlets, etc.
    6. Address the birds and bats concern; is it more important than the loss of fish habitat or spawning runs?
    7. Create a single, comprehensive contract whereby government tenders and pays contractors. Take a page from the movie industry, which pays only upon completion of each stage. Also, all public projects and ministries should have their books open to their owners: The people.
  • Kathleen Masse
    commented 2013-11-09 13:04:27 -0800
    I agree we need a comprehensive economic analysis of Site C and its alternatives but quite frankly I am disappointed in this article. I have not seen enough evidence to convince me that wind power is the best alternative or even better than Site C. How many wind turbines would be required to produce this much power? How many acres of land would have to be devoted to unsightly wind farms? There is increasing documentation of impacts of turbines on birds and bats. Let’s have a comprehensive analysis including all the alternatives including conservation strategies. And let’s not jump to conclusions until we have all the evidence.
  • Deborah Brady
    commented 2013-11-08 19:13:37 -0800
    i would like one price for all hydro users….and a slightly higher price for industry using huge amounts….public subsidy of private profit has got to stop
  • Terry Dance-Bennink
    commented 2013-11-08 16:02:46 -0800
    An excellent article Andrew. We need concrete positive examples of alternatives to oil and gas and your analysis is a first class example. I’ve printed it out and will use it in my canvassing. The BC Liberals won the last election because of their emphasis on jobs – let’s beat them at their own game.

    I’d like to know what strategy the BC Greens will take in the likely event that the Joint Review Panel will say yes to Enbridge with conditions. The Dogwood Initiative has proposed a Citizen Initiative, like the HST referendum. Would the Greens support this?
  • Don Barthel
    commented 2013-11-08 14:48:21 -0800
    “BC Hydro has forecasted that our energy needs will increase by about 40% as a consequence of both population and economic growth” – if BC Hydro is proven wrong on their forecast, wind power can be scaled back (build fewer wind farms) or increased (build more) to meet actual energy demand. Site C can only be built or not and cannot be scaled to the actual demand.

    I believe that organic BC demand will be far less than 40% and that Site C is being built to power the compressors for LNG export of fracked gas.
  • Potter Eastman
    commented 2013-11-08 13:56:25 -0800
    Brilliant – Can you comment on challenges with grid access for wind power?
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