After a six-year process filled with hurdles, construction has begun on the Fitzsimmons Creek hydro project, a 7.5-megawatt run-of-river power plant that Arthur DeJong, Whistler Blackcomb's (WB) mountain planning and environmental resource manager, calls "the most significant project in terms of sustainability that we've done to date."
The Fitzsimmons Creek project will produce enough electricity to match the total annual energy consumption of the ski resort's winter and summer operations, including the 36 ski lifts, 17 restaurants, 269 snowguns and all the other buildings and services.
That means the renewable energy project, which is being built through a joint venture between Ledcor Power Group and Innergex Renewable Energy with WB as a strategic partner, will generate about 32 gigawatt hours of hydroelectricity each year after it becomes operational in December 2009. That's enough energy to power about 3,000 homes, DeJong said.
"What makes this project profound for our company is that that number matches what Whistler Blackcomb consumes in its entirety in terms of its operating footprints, our lifts, our snowmaking, all our lodges," DeJong said.
But the energy generated by Fitzsimmons Creek won't be directly used to power the resort, because its output won't quite be in alignment with the resort's time of peak demand in the winter, DeJong said. Instead, a contract is being negotiated for the energy to be sold to B.C. Hydro.
WB is making strides in helping to turn the tide of climate change and rampant energy consumption, DeJong said.
"If we can put green electrons onto the grid, we are helping with the energy problem," he said.
Ledcor CMI is building the project and Innergex and Ledcor Power own it, while WB led the research and planning and now is closely involved in the construction and day-to-day environmental stewardship. The project sits within the ski resort's tenure.
Jamie Horner, senior project manager for Ledcor Power, said it's great to see the project come together after such a long development process. Ledcor divisions also built the 49-megawatt Ashlu Creek power project and the seven-megawatt Brandywine hydroelectric.
"It's such a good project to have happen. It's in the right place, there's lots of electricity demand in Whistler - it's all for the right reasons, it's the right project at the right time, so it's wonderful to see it happening," Horner said.
It was a struggle at times to secure money for the project, which currently comes with an approximately $30-million price tag. In 2006, a report by Terasen about the viability of the project indicated it would not be feasible at the energy and construction prices of that time.
But after B.C. Hydro officials raised the amount they're willing to pay for energy, under the B.C. Hydro Standing Offer Program also available to other developers, the Fitzsimmons Creek project became viable again, DeJong said.
"It's been a challenge to put the economics of this project together, and that's one of the reasons why it's taken six years," he said.
The project's environmental impacts have been thoroughly studied, DeJong said, leading to the conclusion that Fitzsimmons Creek could take on a project of this small size without damaging the fisheries or unduly affecting the surroundings.
"(The project's) footprint is very small, and the river itself ecologically doesn't score as high as most rivers in the corridor," DeJong said.
DeJong said he's well aware these sorts of projects cannot be undertaken without impacts, but the project can fit in well with the already developed Fitzsimmons Creek area.
"There are always impacts with these projects; just the silver lining on this project is the impacts are far less than the typical project of its kind," DeJong said.
The Fitzsimmons Creek project has been discussed and supported by the Whistler 2020 energy committee for several years, DeJong said.
Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed said he thinks the project is "a great initiative," consistent with what Whistler and its partners are trying to achieve in terms of alternative energy. He said Fitzsimmons Creek is an appropriate stream to be using for this project, though there will always be impacts.
Melamed said he believes the project fits with the Whistler 2020 principles because "it supports the development of alternate energy and the reduction of greenhouse gases," and it's also in line with The Natural Step.
The project could have implications for Ziptrek Ecotours, which runs its eco-friendly tour business over 33 acres between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains.
Ziptrek co-founder David Udow said his company wholly supports the concept of green power generation and the ideas behind this project.
"We do support the concept of green power generation, and we have always known and expected that there would be a run-of-river hydro project on Fitzsimmons Creek. Since Day 1, we supported the concept wholeheartedly," he said.
However, he said there are some concerns over whether the Ziptrek guest experience will be hurt by the drop in water flow in the section where water is diverted through a pipe, a.k.a. penstock, to produce the energy before returning to the creek.
Though Ziptrek guests don't touch the water, Udow said, "there are visual and acoustic benefits without having to touch it," and Ziptrek managers had hoped more water might be left in the creek.
But the full impact of what the stream will look like won't be clear until the project starts running, Udow said, and he finds a positive in the production of enough energy to balance the ski resort's use in an environmentally friendly way.
DeJong acknowledged there could be impacts for Ziptrek, but said he hopes the company could come to benefit from the program of guest engagement and education that DeJong wants to build up around the project. Udow said that could possibly be worked into Ziptrek's existing interpretive programs about sustainability, but add that the company will have to wait and see what takes shape.
DeJong said the project is a steppingstone for WB's green energy initiatives, as wind farms and smaller hydro applications are also being considered.
"This is just the beginning. We need to do more" to resolve climate change, he said, adding, "This is an important step for us."