A spokesperson for FortisBC says several recommendations to improve power in the Lardeau Valley are unrealistic. Photo: Fortis Alberta

A spokesperson for FortisBC says several recommendations to improve power in the Lardeau Valley are unrealistic. Photo: Fortis Alberta

Lardeau Valley power stability group to soldier on, despite limited options

The area suffers from chronic power problems

by John Boivin

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

A Lardeau Valley community group says it will continue to work for solutions to the region’s chronic power problems, and the top politician in the area says she’s committed to finding solutions, despite power officials pouring cold water on many of the group’s recommendations.

Aimee Watson, Area D director and RDCK chair, and the Lardeau Valley Opportunity Links Society (LINKS) held a public meeting on July 26 at the Lardeau Valley Community Hall. The focus of the meeting was to look at options and next steps coming from a report on fixing the area’s ongoing power problems.

The report, commissioned by LINKS, was completed by the Rocky Point and PBX Engineering groups in March of this year. It sought to explore options for the community to improve electrical reliability in the area.

Despite being served by both FortisBC and BC Hydro, the region’s 430-odd customers endure frequent and sustained outages, sometimes for days at a time.

“Residents and businesses face more than the inconvenience,” the report found. “They face issues like lack of phone service, access to water as most are on wells that require pumps, risks to medical equipment and loss of business.”

The root cause of the problem is trees falling on power lines, but the report found systemic issues with supply and line repair.

The report looked at several options:

• burying sections of the power lines in frequent tree fall areas, or laying the line along the bottom of Kootenay Lake;

• creating a microgrid or virtual power plant for backup power, establishing energy storage and generation facilities as well as a central controller;

• getting faster response times by reviving the service agreement that saw a Fortis work crew stationed in the Kaslo area;

• bringing a redundant power line into the valley;

• purchasing backup generators or batteries for individual customers.

However, power company officials reiterated that the number of customers just didn’t justify the expense to try to solve what’s a relatively small problem.

“It’s a difficult conversation to have with a community where you say, ‘Look, you live in a rural area, it’s hard – trees fall on power lines,’” said FortisBC’s manager of community and aboriginal relations, Blair Weston. “We’re spending a lot of money for the amount of customers for the rate base to make sure the power system is as reliable as it can get.”

Hydro officials had responded to the report’s options in the spring after it was released, and officials who attended the public meeting stuck with those explanations. One by one, the public was told how the report’s options wouldn’t work:

• Burying the power lines would be prohibitively expensive. And while it would stop treefall outages, it would likely make responding to any other outage longer and more complex to repair.

• A service crew won’t be restored to Kaslo. For safety and logistical reasons, it would have to be a three-person team, and the work isn’t there to justify that.

• A second power line into the valley would be tantamount to spending millions (which customers have to pay back) for a redundant transmission line that would only be used occasionally. That would be prohibitively expensive for local ratepayers.

Finally, it was FortisBC’s Weston who laid the electrical companies’ cards on the table.

“I’m going to be the guy who says it’s not going to happen,” said Weston of the burying-the-lines idea, but indirectly to the other ideas. “That’s one thing that’s not going happen. It’s millions and millions and millions of dollars for a system that is working way more than 90 per cent of the time.”

Weston also noted the hydro companies had spent nearly $4 million in recent years clearing right-of-ways and adding equipment that reduces the impact of branches tripping the circuit on power lines.

Despite having cold water poured on their bigger ideas, Watson said she was committed to continuing to work on ways of securing the Lardeau’s power grid.

“We need to get some hard facts on who needs what,” she said. “We already have quite a few people who are independent, and can flick a switch and they’re good. But what’s the gap in actual service? Who needs support here?”

The solutions could range from small home batteries to solar to micro-generators along creeks to community micro-grid solutions, she said. She also dissuaded talk of using gas or diesel generators, saying the province should be moving away from fossil-fuel-based power.

“I wouldn’t necessarily look at what the solution is, as much as I want to quantify what the need is. What’s missing and what isn’t,” she said.

The community group will begin collecting information from individuals as to their power needs and what gaps in service they experience. With more information, they might be able to bring down some of the cost estimates for the options that still have a glimmer of hope – providing generator or battery power to help customers when facing long gaps in service, or micro-grids.

The power companies were good with that proposal.

“At Fortis, we’re doing a lot to improve reliability, so thanks for the opportunity to talk about it,” said Weston. “But also thanks for trying to find solutions at the community level, instead of just pointing the finger and saying it’s something for us to fix. Rather, it’s something to fix collectively.”

And Watson said while the power companies have dismissed most of the report’s options as unworkable, she’ll take other routes to get results. She vowed to keep the issue on the table with the Columbia River Treaty Local Governments’ Committee and said she’d approach the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Columbia Basin Trust.

And the community group will continue its work, they said.

“LINKS will be looking for community support at the beginning of this project, working on those next steps of trying to find out the gaps in the community … and any help or support or feedback you want to give us is something we would really appreciate,” said LINKS administrator, Valerie Cowan. “Our door is open… know that we’re still here and still working on it.”