The hydropower boom in British Columbia

Large hydroelectric facilities in British Columbia are being upgraded to meet the growing needs of this province

by Kirsten Armleder
An aerial shot of the Ruskin Dam and Powerhouse before the upgrade project started.

The 85-year-old Ruskin Dam and Powerhouse on the Stave River near Mission is one of many aging hydroelectric facilities in B.C. that are currently undergoing major upgrades. — photo courtesy BC Hydro

With numerous mountains, rivers and lakes, British Columbia is geographically well suited for generating hydroelectricity. Over the years, this province has become Canada’s second largest producer of hydropower, and the reliability of B.C.’s generation and transmission system is recognized around the globe.

“We don’t have brownouts in B.C.,” said Bill Bennett, B.C.’s Minister of Energy and Mines. “Everywhere else in the world, they have brownouts, and we don’t have them here because we have a really good system.”

B.C. saw a power boom in the mid- to late-20th century when large hydroelectric facilities sprang up in key areas of the province. Since then, B.C. has been relying on these aging facilities to generate clean, affordable electricity. But as the population grows so will the demand for electricity, and the Province has already made a commitment to being self-sufficient in meeting its own electricity needs by 2016. According to Bennett, B.C. currently produces 96 per cent of its own electricity from clean, renewable sources—including hydropower.

Billions of dollars have been spent by BC Hydro and FortisBC, the two major power suppliers in B.C., on upgrading existing hydroelectric assets, and more upgrades are taking place as we speak.

Here is a look at six major hydroelectric projects happening in B.C.

Ruskin Dam & Powerhouse Upgrade

Where: On the Stave River in Mission
Prime contractor: BC Hydro
Timeline: 2012 to 2017
Cost: $748 million
More info

The Ruskin Dam & Powerhouse, which was commissioned in the 1930s, is receiving seismic upgrades to the powerhouse and dam, as well as new equipment in the powerhouse, new piers and spillway gates, a new two-lane roadway and pedestrian walkway on top of the dam, and a new switchyard. When complete, the facility will be safer, more efficient and better able to withstand a one-in-10,000-year earthquake. 

John Hart Generating Station Replacement

Where: Campbell River on Vancouver Island
Prime contractor: InPower BC (SNC-Lavalin)
Timeline: 2014 to 2018
Cost: $1.1 billion
More info

The 68-year-old John Hart Generating Station is seeing the construction of an innovative underground powerhouse, three 1.8-kilometre pipelines with a 2.1-kilometre tunnel, a new water intake at the dam, and a new water bypass facility. When complete in late 2018, the John Hart Generating Station will also see an increase in power generation capacity. So far, the first stage of the powerhouse cavern has been complete and crews are now spanning all areas of the site.

Waneta Expansion Project

Where: On the Pend d’Oreille River south of Trail
Prime contractor: SNC-Lavalin
Timeline: 2010 to 2015
Cost: $900 million
More info

The Waneta Expansion Project, now complete, saw the construction of a second powerhouse directly downstream from the existing Waneta Dam and a 10-kilometre transmission line running from Waneta to BC Hydro’s Selkirk Substation. Water that would otherwise be spilled is now being used to generate enough power to run 60,000 homes annually. FortisBC, Columbia Power and Columbia Basin Trust have joint interest in this facility.

Mica Units 5 & 6

Where: On the Columbia River north of Revelstoke
Prime contractors: Andritz Hydro and Peter Kiewit Infrastructure Group
Timeline: 2011 to 2015
Cost: close to $1 billion
More info

The Mica Generating Station was originally designed to hold six generating units but only four were installed, so two more are being added to the facility. Each unit will provide an additional 500 megawatts of capacity. BC Hydro is also replacing aging high-voltage switchgear equipment at the site. So far, the fifth generating unit has been commissioned and the new switchyard completed. According to a February 2015 project report, BC Hydro has started to assemble the sixth generating station and it should be up and running by late 2015.

Revelstoke Unit 5

Where: On the Columbia River near Revelstoke
Timeline: To be installed as early as 2020, if needed
Cost: An estimated $420 million
More info

The Revelstoke Generating Station was originally designed to house six generating units, but only four were installed when it was commissioned in 1984. A fifth unit was added in 2010, and now BC Hydro has proposed the construction of a sixth one, to be installed by 2020 if additional capacity is needed to meet future electricity needs. A project description was filed with the BC Environmental Assessment Office in the spring of 2013; BC Hydro is pursuing regulatory approvals and the corporation is engaging with First Nations, local government and members of the community on the impact of this project to the area. 

Site C Clean Energy Project 

Where: On the Peace River southwest of Fort St. John
Timeline: 2015 - 2024
Cost: An estimated $8.3 billion
More info

BC Hydro’s Site C Clean Energy Project will see the construction of a third dam and hydroelectric generating station on the Peace River between Hudson’s Hope and Fort St. John. When complete, it will provide 1,100 megawatts of capacity and produce about 5,100 gigawatt hours of electricity each year—enough to power about 450,000 homes annually. In October 2014, Site C received environmental approval by the provincial and federal governments, and in December 2014, it got the greenlight to proceed to construction.

Site clearing and road building started in the summer of 2015, and according to the preliminary construction schedule, these and similar activities will continue to take place well into 2016. So far, contracts have been awarded to ATCO Two Rivers Lodging Group, Paul Paquette and Son’s Contracting Ltd., Morgan Construction and Environmental Ltd., and A.L. Sims and Sons Ltd.

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