When B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett unveiled a strategic plan for BC Hydro, it included hefty rate hikes, spending cuts and the sale of surplus properties – all designed to rein in the utility's burgeoning debt and upgrade its aging infrastructure.
The plan also included a commitment to close Burrard Thermal. A natural gas-fired electricity plant on the north shore of Burrard Inlet in Port Moody, the site was built in the 1960s and has run at less than full capacity for years because it is more polluting and less cost-efficient than other facilities in the B.C. Hydro system.
Reminded on Tuesday that such plans had been heard before, Mr. Bennett was unequivocal.
"It's history," he said.
Burrard Thermal has been a source of contention for years, with environmental groups pointing to its emissions of polluting gases, including nitrogen oxide, even after BC Hydro invested millions in technology to reduce emissions in recent decades.
Its technology – efficient in its day – was also a more expensive way of generating electricity than the dams that BC Hydro counts on for more than 80 per cent of its generating capacity.
"It is grossly inefficient," David Austin, a Vancouver energy lawyer, said on Wednesday. "Say you have 10 dimes. If you say, 'Okay, we're going to run Burrard Thermal,' you get to keep three of those dimes. And the other seven, you throw over your shoulder for good."
Newer, combined-cycle, natural gas-fired generating plants – such as one now operating in Campbell River – run at about 70-per-cent efficiency, Mr. Austin said.
The Liberal government has been talking about reducing its reliance on Burrard Thermal since 2001 and took the facility out of its planning mix for "firm" energy in 2009, relegating it to backup emergency status.
NDP energy critic John Horgan questions the rationale for retiring Burrard Thermal, saying the 950-megawatt facility provides an important safety net for the Lower Mainland.
"It is the baseload backup for the city of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland," Mr. Horgan said.
"When you have the bulk of your load centre distanced from generation by many hundreds of kilometres of transmission, either from the Peace or the Interior [generating facilities], it's nice to know if you need it you can fire up the [Burrard Thermal] generator."
BC Hydro says shutting down generation at Burrard Thermal will save $14-million a year. But to replace that emergency capacity, the utility has had to invest in expensive new transmission lines, Mr. Horgan said.
"They have added new infrastructure to replace it at well beyond what it costs to run it today," he said.
The potential closure of the site also means a loss of revenue for the city of Port Moody, which currently receives a grant of $1.2-million, based on the generating capacity of the plant. The mayor of Port Moody has also expressed concerns about the loss of backup capacity in the region.
On paper, Burrard Thermal accounts for about 7.5 per cent of BC Hydro's capacity, or enough electricity to power about 700,000 homes.
But although Burrard Thermal was on standby, it was rarely put into use. According to BC Hydro's 2013 annual report, the facility has operated at less than 1-per-cent capacity in each of the past five years.
In the year ended March 31, 2013, Burrard Thermal generated a mere 25-gigawatt hours of electricity – or zero per cent of BC Hydro's overall supply – compared with nearly 16,000 gigawatt hours, or 18.2 per cent of total supply, churned out by the G.M. Shrum generating station on the Peace River.
BC Hydro says it will continue to use the plant in a "transmission support role," which involves using its generators to occasionally draw power and smooth out dips and spikes across the system.