Site C study nothing but political skullduggery pretending to be academic analysis

Site C
Liberal leader Christ Clark, Green Party leader Andrew Weaver (centre), NDP leader John Horgan.

Bakker study on Site C hydro dam should have been released prior to election so it could be properly scrutinized

A new UBC study pours cold water on the Site C dam project, saying it is uneconomic and work should be suspended pending a full review by the BC Utilities Commission. The authors take issue with almost all of BC Hydro’s assumptions to justify the $8 billion Site C project. Unfortunately, their own assumptions – and motives – are more than a little shaky.

Site C
Dr. Karen Bakker.

The study was written by Prof. Karen Bakker, Canada Research Chair and director of UBC’s Program on Water Governance, and released under the auspices of the university. But her co-authors are not faculty. Philip Raphals and Richard Hendriks are both consultants with a long history of working for First Nations fighting the Site C project.

And the timing of the study’s release is, well, suspect. As is Bakker’s claim in a press release that the study “is a non partisan, common sense, sober second thought analysis.” This is a political hit job designed to focus election debate on the recommendation to suspend the project and refer it for review by the BC Utilities Commission.

By waiting until after the election writ was dropped Bakker et. al. ensured that BC Hydro wouldn’t be able to respond to the study’s criticisms. “As part of our obligation to remain impartial during this time, we are not able to comment beyond pointing you to publicly available data or information,” a BC Hydro spokesperson responded to my request for comment.

If the authors were really motivated by the public interest, they would have released the study before the election, allowing reporters and commentators time to put the analysis and assumptions under the microscope.


Thus far, Liberal leader Christy Clark is rejecting the referral option, while John Horgan of the NDP says his party will wait for a post-election review before deciding. Andrew Weaver, Green Party leader, is opposed to Site C.

The Bakker study

Site C
Site C hydro power dam artist’s rendering.

“The business case for Site C is far weaker now than when the project was launched, to the point that the Project is now uneconomic,” says Bakker, whose study makes two key criticisms of BC Hydro’s rationale for Site C.

One, that there has been a “[d]ramatic decline in projected electricity needs since 2012” and that 85 per cent of BC Hydro’s load forecasts over the past three decades have been “overestimates.”

BC Hydro says electricity demand will grow almost 40 percent over the next 20 years because the population is expected to grow by one million people and the lower mainland economy is expected to expand. The utility also points out that significant load growth could come from development of the LNG industry and increasing electrification of the economy (think electric vehicles, for example), which the Canadian government says will be the biggest driver of greenhouse gas reductions.

Two, there has been a “[s]ignificant decline in the cost of alternative sources of electricity,” particularly wind power, which the International Energy Agency forecasts will drop by another 20 percent by 2030. Bakker is correct, but that doesn’t necessarily mean wind is more economic than hydro or Site C.

“We have seen the costs of renewable technology like wind and solar decrease and it’s anticipated that trend will continue into the future,” said Naomi Christensen, senior policy analyst at the Canada West Foundation, who wrote a report on hydro power in Western Canada last year, in an interview.

“But, our analysis looked at the levellized cost of electricity – which basically includes all factors that go into producing that electricity – life span, the amount of electricity that it can actually produce, operating costs, capital costs – for all the different renewable sources. We found that hydro is still the cheapest source of renewable energy.”

Two of the most common levelized cost of energy studies are produced by Lazard and the US Energy Information Administration. Lazard found that unsubsidized wind can be as low as $32 per megawatt hour (MWh) or as high as $62/MWh, while the EIA put it at $55.80/MWh. The range in costs is due to regional factors that include the quality of the wind resource, local labour and construction costs.

As Christensen notes, proponents of each power generation technology have their own figures showing their favourite as the lowest cost option.

Which is as good an argument as any for approaching the Bakker’s work with an abundance of caution. A few of the technical bloggers, like Langley-based environmental chemist Blair King, have begun unpacking the study and found the analysis lacking.

Academics and consultants release studies all the time. The work is scrutinized, debated, and may or may not influence public opinion or government decisions.

But by releasing this study at the start of an election campaign, instead of before the writ was dropped, Bakker, Raphals, and Hendriks have tried to pull a sneaky end-run around the normal process.

The authors – and UBC for lending its credibility to this bit of political deception – should have their fingers rapped.  And the political leaders should ignore the study for the remainder of the campaign.

By all means debate Site C. Just leave this bit of academic chicanery out of the public discussion.

Correction: Blair King is an environmental chemist, not an engineer. The copy has been edited to reflect the correction.

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