Large-scale energy projects threaten bioenergy innovation in British Columbia

The development of large-scale energy projects, including the Site C hydroelectric dam, threatens to drive bioenergy and biofuel production away from British Columbia (B.C.), experts warn.

Jack Saddler, a researcher at the University of B.C. and part of a project to convert forest residues to biojet fuel, told CBC News that big energy projects could drive out innovation in the industry.

The Site C Dam is a project by BC Hydro for a large-scale earth fill hydroelectric dam on the Peace River in north-eastern B.C., Canada.

In 2008, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell published a bioenergy strategy outlining the use of organic waste and wood and agricultural residues to produce renewable, carbon-neutral energy.

The plan included a C$25 million (€17.9m) investment in the B.C. Bioenergy Network.

"Bioenergy is absolutely critical to achieving B.C.'s climate goals and economic objectives," the report read.

However, now some experts are raising concerns whether the current Premier Christy Clark will be as enthusiastic about bioenergy.

According to Paul Kariya, executive director of energy company Clean Energy B.C., said many people are “cautious” and that the Site C dam will lead to an energy surplus.

While some renewable energy producers have contracts to supply BC Hydro with power, he said the opportunities are limited.

"Whether its wind, hydro, solar, or bioenergy — they just don't need it right now, and so they're not that encouraging," Kariya added.

BC Hydro currently has electricity purchase agreements with 24 bioenergy projects, B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennet told CBC, but there are currently no large open calls for power in the province.

With B.C.'s needs satisfied by hydro and natural gas, Kariya worries that the province is driving away innovation in the renewable energy sector.

"We're in danger of losing private sector innovation across all fuel types if we're not careful. I think that's our fear— companies looking to invest elsewhere because there isn't an opportunity in the near term right now."

That elsewhere might be B.C.’s next door neighbour Alberta, whose government recently announced a C$60 million diversification investment into bioenergy.

The funding comes from Alberta’s freshly implemented carbon tax and is aimed at producers who intend to drive renewable technologies forward.

Kariya said that while Alberta’s energy are different from B.C.’s as it has much fewer hydro opportunities, the government’s focus on diversification could be the key to success also in B.C.

"We're trying to work with government and convince them that they need a more diversified approach, a longer term vision rather than relying on one big project, or demand centre," he said.

Kariya concluded by noting how awkward the B.C. energy market is at the moment, as bioenergy producers have only one buyer, BC Hydro, who is also their largest competitor.

This article was written by Ilari Kauppila, deputy editor at Biofuels International and Bioenergy Insight

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