Site C Dam

The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the world.

Organization:  BC Hydro – British Columbia, Canada
Project type :  Hydro-electric power generator and associated dam
Project name : Site C dam
Date : Jun 2023
Cost : $16B CAD and climbing

Synopsis :

Today’s large scale civil engineering projects aren’t just about engineering. They typically involve a significant public relations component as well. One such project is the Site C hydro-electric dam project under construction on the Peace River in British Columbia. When finished the 60 meter high earth-fill dam will create a reservoir with the capacity to generate more than five gigawatt hours of clean power generation each year.

While hydro-electric dams provide significant clean electrical power they also have a significant environmental footprint. Flooding fertile farmland, disturbing delicate fish habitat and impacting riparian zones along the river, the project has raised significant concerns among environmentalists and local communities. In a project where those environmental interests are juxtaposed, the divergent environmental perspectives leave the project with a delicate balancing act as they make the case for public support.

Site C dam power generation facility under construction

In this specific case the challenge is compounded by the fact that part of the rationale behind the project was the need to supply electrical power to a number of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plants proposed for British Columbia. Those facilities would convert natural gas into LNG thus allow BC to exploit it’s fossil fuel reserves. As such the dam’s clean electrical energy would be used to enable the distribution (and hence usage) of fossil fuels thereby negating the positive benefits available from clean electrical production.

While those issues resulted in strong and vocal resistance to the project, a 2014 Abacus Data Poll*1 indicated that 79% of the British Columbia public were in broad agreement with the plan (assuming appropriate environmental safeguards were put in place). That support in part enabled work to physically start in the summer of 2015 at which time it was estimated that the project would be completed in 8 years.  As of writing (2023) the completion date is now reported as 2024 with full operations being reached in 2025.

The shift in timeline is certainly understandable given the impacts of Covid-19. However since work started, the original $8 billion Canadian dollar budget has ballooned with revised estimates published in 2021 now projecting costs of $16 billion. Clearly since then inflation has spiked and so the cost to cover the remaining work is likely higher.

Those cost overruns have kept the project in the public’s eye and although the project has reached a stage where cancellation is unlikely, the excessive expense has significantly tarnished the Provincial Government’s credibility. That in turn calls into question BC’s ability to make sound decisions and therein lies the problem: The negative press may well stand in the way of future green-energy projects.

See also:

  • Strategic misrepresentation – Approving a project like Site C is much a political decision as it is a financial decision. Although we shall never know, the increase in budget will always leave people wondering if this is a case of strategic misrepresentation (i.e. putting forth a low ball budget in order to get approval and then increase the budget once work has progressed to the point where it makes little sense to stop.

Reference links:

*1 – Funding of the polling has not been determined and hence the independence of the data does need to be questioned.