Dammed Heritage, Damned Consumers

Next week, a company called Swift River Energy Limited will start ripping up the landscape to dam the waterfalls at the heart of the town of Bala, Ontario. The 4.5 MW project, located where Lake Muskoka issues into the Moon River, would produce a trivial amount of useful power. Most of the output will be delivered when Ontario and neighbouring utilities are already over-supplied. Ontario consumers will pay far above market rates for every drop of its juice — up to 17.685 cents/kWh. For the foreseeable future, the consumers benefiting from this project will be in Michigan and New York. They will pay pennies on the dollar for the exported power.

Lost will be an ancient portage route travelled for centuries by aboriginal people, explorers, fur traders, and more recently by recreational paddlers. Where there is today a public park with free parking and a place for folks to picnic, view the falls, swim and fish, in its place will be a concrete impoundment and powerhouse, probably surrounded with a barbed wire fence.

As documented in this post from Mitchell Shnier, the project’s development has been facilitated by a bogus Environmental Assessment process administered by conflicted government agencies charged with implementing the government’s green-at-all-cost agenda. The process has been based on phoney information from the proponent. Reasonable compromises proposed by concerned citizens that could have preserved some of the historic and amenity values of this unique site were simply ignored.

The destruction of Bala Falls is what we get when energy policy decisions are driven by public opinion polls. Most folks in Ontario think that hydro-power is environmentally friendly and cheap. All three political parties spout similar nonsense on how Ontario needs more hydro power.

The reality of new hydro power in Ontario is very different than historic hydro power. The good power generation sites were developed long ago. The last hydro power project constructed in Ontario that delivers net value for consumers today is probably OPG’s 82 MW Arnprior GS, completed in 1977 for $89 million (that included the spillway dam too). Reflecting the fact that the only hydro power sites left have marginal production potential that is very costly to exploit, every project since then has been a loser for consumers.

Ontario’s few remaining wild waterfalls are precious treasures, like old growth forests. Throwing them away for a miserable little bit of useful power at drastic expense is a testament to the current state of green thinking.

Here is a previous posting on ruinous hydro power development referencing the excellent work of the Ontario River’s Alliance that might interest folks following the story: http://www.tomadamsenergy.com/2012/06/14/water-power-developments-ugly-side/

Post script 4:45 pm October 16, 2014: After posting this commentary, I found this news report indicating that there may be some chance of reprieve for Bala Falls.

More details are available on here.

Perhaps the Wynne government will reconsider whether green-at-any-cost is really worth while.

Post script February 5, 2015: Consistent with the editing practice on this site of leaving the original posts intact warts and all except for line edits, to save folks the trouble of archiving material they want to keep, the previous post script references might be improved with this and this.

32 Comments

  1. We are fighting a similar battle in Almonte (MississippiMills), Ont. My heart goes out to the people of Bala. It is difficult to fight corporations with deep pockets. We need to stick together and make our voices heard. Maude Barlow is coming to our community to support us November 12th in our fight against Enerdu. Please sign our petition http://www.almonte.com/petition

    Good luck to us all!!

  2. Maude loves wind turbines but there are lots of us who think they do nothing except cause health problems, raise the price of electricity and produce power when we don’t need it. Oh, they also kill birds and bats in great numbers.

  3. “Ontario’s few remaining wild waterfalls are precious treasures, like old growth forests.” Tom, from time to time you veer off into the land of make-believe. Please advise if you have visited Bala Falls.

    In the meantime I have been told that my electricity bill is going up again. The reporting on this November’s money-grab event has been trivial . Are we all so inured to this even that we don’t care anymore? The Canadian press says “says the forecast includes an estimate for increases in the cost of power from rate-regulated nuclear and hydroelectric power plants”. This statement flies in the face of your assertions that renewables share a large part (the majority?) of the blame of all price increases. We look forward to your analysis.

    • The sentence you quote is from the conclusion of my commentary and was meant to relate generally to the issue of naturally flowing rivers.

      I have been visited Bala but haven’t spent time at the falls. I have historical family roots in Torrance through the McBains.

      The study I have co-authored with Ross McKitrick (U of G) for the Fraser Institute presenting a new econometric model of commodity price drivers will be published on Thursday October 23rd.

      Post script October 24: Release of the study identified above has been delayed by one week.

    • I agree this is hardly a “wild waterfall”. With respect to energy prices, while the government has done a very poor job of explaining the situation to the public, it is obvious to those in the “biz” (which I know you are one) the costs are not merely due to renewables, but to the vast improvements to infrastructure to a grid that has been sorely ignored for decades. New transmission lines and switchyards aren’t “sexy” in the news but go a lot further to explaining cost increases when many of the FIT renewables haven’t even gone on-line yet to have any impact to rates. Furthermore, this headline of selling power to the states at low or -ve costs doesn’t tell the full story that this is done during extreme low load times (i.e. in the middle of the night) and is simply an attempt at some cost recovery. You cannot run a grid to only meet the lowest load levels and with almost no storage on the system, in order to meet peak times, we must generate excess during lower demand times. Unless of course the province really wants to give up on renewables and use only consumables such as oil, gas and coal, then we could generate at the exact load requirement but be left vulnerable to price fluctuations as well as all the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels. In addition, we must plan now to deal with the coming shut downs of the nuclear fleet as Pickering is decommissioned and the others are all due for refurbishment in the next 5 years. Finally, hydroelectric / waterpower has been proven to be the most cost effective form of electricity in this province, in particular in the long-term.

      • I have had a private email exchange with the author of this comment, who acknowledges that this person is a consultant to the developer but does not wish to participate further in this exchange.

  4. Tom, if you have been in Bala you have to be familiar with the Bala Falls. As you drive through town the wonderful view of open water is looking over the Falls down the Moon River. And that is exactly where the MNR and Swift River Energy are proposing to put their hydro plant.

    • Allan: As you well know, the view of the Moon river will be unaffected by the project, unless you wish to perch yourself uncomfortably on the side of a busy road on one leg with one eye shut. It just ain’t so. Tom, although having some genetic heritage link to Bala, admits he known nought of the site.

      • so mbell, you are an expert on all things Bala Falls…are you a tax payer there? Do you spend $15,000 per annum on property taxes for nothing except for garbage pickup(oh yeah, and peace, beauty and tranquility)? Why are you so ‘pro’ a hydro plant there? What possible benefits will you personally derive from this destruction of a simply beautiful place in the MIDDLE of Bala? Why not throw your support around a hydro project in downtown Simcoe, say at the main intersection? Thought so…wouldn’t want that there, huh? Stay away from what you don’t know…talk to me mbell-please feel free to call me …Glenn Zavitz @ 519-591-8878 collect if you wish-please?

  5. To suggest that Bala Falls is a “wild waterfall” is not only misleading, it is untrue. This “falls” has been dammed since the late 1800s. Water flows through timber stoplogs, not over a natural ledge. No new dam is proposed at this site and no diversion other than around the existing dam. The project is merely going to harness the energy from the existing dams. To suggest the developer hasn’t tried to compromise is also false. The project has been redesigned twice to satisfy the changing whim of the municipal government. The Save the Bala Falls group has spent the last 7 years spreading misinformation to its followers and intimidating the community in an attempt to scare them into helping their fight to stop the project. Hearing many of their followers speak publicly about the project makes it obvious they have no clue what is to be built and are merely relaying the STBF message. Yet they refuse to get the real answers that ready available. Finally to suggest that the Environmental Assessment was “bogus” is ridiculous. The EA was reviewed by the government including numerous agencies at an approximate 2 – 1/2 year delay to the project resulting in not one but two Ministerial approvals. Furthermore, both the Divisional Court and the Court of Appeal ruled against there being a “historic portage” on this tiny 1/5 acre piece of Crown land the project will use. This is by far the most benign waterpower in the province if not the country with the biggest impacts being to Muskoka cottagers swimming at an already signed “no-swim” area where two adults drown in 2009, not to mention the now former Mayor’s view from her cottage.

    • I have had a private email exchange with the author of this comment, who acknowledges that this person is a consultant to the developer but does not wish to participate further in this exchange.

  6. Glenn: Sorry to hear that your property taxes were wasted on, amount other things, tremendous legal costs regarding the quixotic ‘save the mayor’s viewshed’ campaign and other ‘garbage pickup’ items. At least your garbage got dumped!

  7. Karen and KSM? Two people with great things to say about Swift River Energy’s proposed hydro plant at the Bala Falls? That struck me as extremely unlikely.
    Well, I hovered my mouse over Karen and over KSM and what did I see – “balafalls.ca”. Believe it or not, that is actually Swift River Energy’s web-site.
    So Karen and KSM are now easily identified as KAREN McGHEE, CHIEF SPOKESPERSON FOR SWIFT RIVER ENERGY.
    So what’s going on here? A paid PR hack trying to pass herself off as two concerned citizens joining in the debate? Hard to believe that a responsible hydro developer would stoop to such tactics – isn’t it?

    • Thank you Tom for sharing this truth, I am the woman who is Idle No More and camping to protect this land with a camp now for 81 days. Allan Turnbull is very familiar with this private for private profit Hydro Project and knows the harm this community and destroy the scenic waterfalls that in the core of this beautiful town. We also have a problem with democracy and a government that is refusing to respond to the people. This is Treaty Land and the Traditional Portage of the Wahta Mohawks . The MNR and Wynne Government is not responding to all of the requests to stop this horrible mistake.
      Since when can a private profiteers be given the heart of a community in CANADA ?

    • I have written to “Karen/KSM” inviting this person to introduce themselves to other readers on this site. Although I sometimes tolerate anonymous comments if they have special merit, I much prefer if people sharing ideas on my site identify any interests they might have in the subjects they discuss. Tom

  8. Peggy- You finally packed it in! I am reminded somewhat of the hypocrisy of a certain aboriginal leader caught sipping soup while on a hunger strike. I would have expected you to chain yourself to a rock.

    “Protestor told to cease and desist; tents removed

    Meantime, the protestor who had been camping on the Crown land beside the north Bala Falls dam was served with a verbal cease and desist order last week by the MNR’s regional district manager. Kowalski says the woman refused to take the written order, and was also informed her actions were contrary to the Public Lands Act and the Trespass to Property Act. Last night and this morning, there was no one on the land. Only a blue tarp and items inside could be seen mostly on the neighbouring Township property, along with some hand-made protest posters and Stop the Hydro plant signs remaining within sight of Muskoka Road 169.

    Published November 17, 1:30pm”

  9. mbell,

    You know very well that Ontario renewable energy projects rely heavily on subsidies and other incentives to be viable. Without these incentives and subsidies these projects would not be done.

    • Can you come up with the figures to prove that this project is a viable business venture leaving out any subsidies and other financial incentives?

      If you can then you might have a case to present to the citizens as to why this is a good idea to do this project?

  10. Pingback: Protect Bala Falls | Tom Adams Energy - ideas for a smarter grid

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