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Too many dams and Power Smarter

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Too many dams?

It's like watching a cancer grow.

That's how a group of aboriginal elders described the Nelson River and Manitoba Hydro's plans to build two more dams on the northern river over the next 20 years.

"It's like watching our mother die of cancer every day," Robert Spence told the Public Utilities Board last Friday. "The Nelson River can't heal itself anymore."

The group spoke at the ongoing PUB hearing into Hydro's plans to build the Keeyask and Conawapa generation stations, and a new transmission line that will run from Winnipeg to Duluth MN.

Hydro wants to start construction on Keeyask this summer and has forged a co-owner partnership with four First Nations: Tataskweyak Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation, Fox Lake Cree Nation and York Factory First Nation.

Members of the group said they were wary that the partnership would benefit their communities.

"It's a different dam, but it has the same effects," Gillam resident Ivan Moose said. "It's Hydro construction. It's Hydro destruction to our people."

Members of the group also said they feared more flooding than Hydro has forecast because of the dams and further destruction to the shoreline, water quality, fishing and hunting. They pointed to historic flooding in the north caused by earlier hydro projects.

"How do they know? They're not God," one woman said.

They said they also feared an influx of crime and drug use in their communities as workers from the south move into temporary camps for the projects.

Fox Lake resident Christine Massan stood during the hearing to address the handful of Hydro employees in room.

"Enough already with more dams. Enough already. Do something else. If you were in our place, and you did not work for Manitoba Hydro or the province, what would your thoughts be today? Would you be all gung-ho for building a new dam?"

Power Smarter 

Manitoba Hydro's plan to get us to conserve more energy over the next three years, from replacing older appliances to using newer light bulbs, could be too aggressive for its own good, critics say.

The Crown corporation's new three-year Power Smart plan to 2017 doubles the targeted electric energy savings to be achieved over the next three years, a plan even Hydro admits is aggressive.

Hydro boasts that combined with energy savings achieved to date, the new energy savings represent more than the firm generating capability of the proposed new Keeyask generation station (net capacity 695 megawatts) and equivalent to about double the natural gas needs of Brandon's commercial and residential customers.

The plan, called demand-side management or DSM, is now before the Public Utilities Board as it weighs Hydro's bid to build the Keeyask and Conawapa dams and a new transmission line to the United States.

"What we have now done is dramatically change is how much DSM we're planning to do," Ed Wojczynski, Hydro's manager of portfolio projects, said Friday.

Over the next three years, including other program support and contingency costs, Hydro will spend $188 million in electric Power Smart incentive-based programs with an expected cumulative utility investment of $649 million by 2016-17. On the natural gas side of Hydro's operations, it plans to spend $47 million with an expected cumulative utility investment of $171 million by 2016-17.

However, consultant Philippe Dunsky, told the PUB Hydro might be biting off more than it can chew too fast. Dunsky is one the leading experts on utility-scale conservation in North America and was asked to testify by the Consumers' Association of Canada and Green Action Centre.

"I don't want to assume that that ramp-up is not feasible," he said in his testimony. "But certainly at a high level I tend to prefer a little bit more of a conservative and steady-as-she-goes approach."

Under Hydro's plan, Dunsky said the savings through DSM fall off sharply after 2018. By being less aggressive, he said Hydro could see a more longer window of energy savings, reducing the need for new domestic power supply to 2033-34 and potentially longer.

Hydro has said it wants the first turbine in Keeyask spinning by 2019 -- if construction starts this summer -- to take advantage of lucrative power sales to the American Midwest, which is seeing older coal plants shut down and state requirements for more renewable energy.

Dunsky also said missing from Hydro's long-term conservation plan is solar energy, which is quickly becoming more efficient and less costly to install in the United States and Canada.

"If Manitoba Hydro wants to see this as another measure that can reduce the need for grid-supplied power, it can absolutely get involved in promoting solar power, get ahead of it, if you will," Dunsky said.

He said by waiting to adopt some level of solar power, Hydro not only runs the risk of not achieving conservation savings, but could see its role as the sole provider of power weaken. That's because solar panels and storage batteries, for rooftop solar arrays and community solar gardens, can be relatively easy to install.

"In other words, it could take off on its own," Dunsky said. "We may not get ahead of it. We may find ourselves behind it. And there's a lot of concern now in utilities' fears throughout North America, and Europe, as well, that this is going to fundamentally change the game for utilities."

Wojczynski said over the next decade, Hydro plans to bring in a number of programs to increase savings through demand-side management, such as incentives to make homes more energy efficient, converting more street lighting to LED technology, community geothermal programs and updated building codes. However, solar is not in Hydro's immediate plans.

"In terms of solar, solar over the long term is becoming more attractive, but it's not economic right now in Manitoba," Wojczynski said. "At some point solar will have a lower cost, although there will always in our view, there will always be a need for grid power for backup."

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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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