When “Brownouts” Were Routine

If you can remember when “brownouts” were a regular feature of life in British Columbia, then you are an aging westerner who lived in the era before W.A.C. Bennett shocked Canada from coast to coast with his “nationalization” of BC Electric, a private company he felt was standing in the way of economic progress.

That story is voluminously documented and well told by a multitude of sources. It makes fascinating reading of grand, touching on dictatorial, political decisions and the development of what would eventually become one of the great debate battlegrounds of the century – the development of hydroelectric power.

It was in 1961 that construction began on what would eventually be named the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, 186-metres high (610 feet) and boastfully proclaimed “one of the world’s largest earth-filled dams.” Seven years later, in 1968, the project was declared completed at $756 million with a flourish of announcements that it had all been achieved “on time and on budget.” There was a modest confession a little later that a draw from reserve funds had been required for building a storage reservoir in what was known as “the Trench.” 

The first great step toward the electrification of British Columbia had been taken, although the debate on final terms of the benefit-sharing agreement between BC and the USA continued for years. The passage of time muted bitter NDP opposition to what had become known as the Columbia River Treaty; more power became readily available, and “brownouts,” the frustrating regular fading of power at peak usage time, became rare.

The Bennett Dam and power plant development sparked angry environmental debate and cries of injustice from first nation people who had lived in the valley where their ancestral homes were now buried by the great lake created behind the new dam. A compensation formula was established, but it was far from a happy solution.

The wide-open spaces of British Columbia’s famed Peace River country with fabled rivers and virgin valleys became a centre of attention for BC Hydro and its next major power project. This massive development named Site C would fulfill BC power needs well into the 21st Century.

BC Hydro had already invested $1.5 billion in Site C, with another $4 billion committed through contracts and agreements in the then-estimated $8 billion project. At least, that’s what former Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett (no relation to the former premier) once told Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer.

Just a few days ago, New Democrat Premier John Horgan announced, with some regret, that he could not justify cancelling the massive project. Reluctantly, he said, his government could only watch and weep as billions of dollars flushed through the giant turbines on a wasted journey to the sea.

Could it be that Premier Horgan had earlier failed to grasp the possibility that Site C could, 15 or 20 years from conception, become the economic lifeline its supporters have always claimed it would be?

Just two weeks ago, BC took possession of two newly built electric-powered ferries. More will undoubtedly follow. The entire world is on the verge of abandoning fossil fuels for electric automobiles vehicles.

More modern houses and apartments are being constructed with built-in security systems; blinds and curtains that open and close at the touch of a button, and hand-held miracle gadgets that we have to ask the grade two nipper next door to show us how they work.

When WAC Bennett stormed ahead with his Columbia River Treaty and his first hydro projects, the criticism was fierce and unrelenting. But, the ultimate successes of BC Hydro saw an end to regular brownouts and the start of the era when it became hard to find even a remote cabin in BC where you couldn’t switch on an electric light.

I doubt if I’ll still be around in 2025, so I will miss any Horgan (or successor) announcement that BC Hydro’s Site “C” is “on-line. It will be a grand opening” – with Site “D” – in the planning phase.

2 comments

  1. W.A.C. Bennett was either clairvoyant or simply made a lucky guess, but these projects will put B.C. in a good position to handle the switchover to electric vehicles.

    This is in contrast to its closest two provinces where much of the electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels. To produce more of it for electric cars will mean burning more coal or whatever, an obviously counterproductive activity if carbon emissions are our nemesis.

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