Discretion Advised

  • Posted on: 29 May 2014
  • By: Shawn DeWolfe
Site C Dam is proposed to be built in Northern British Columbia. At capacity, it will produce about 5,100 gigawatt hours of electricity each year — enough energy to power about 450,000 homes per year in BC. It will cost close to $8-billion to create this dam. Some are flagging it as a boondoggle in the making; others are looking at the environmental impact. I look at it and ask: is bigger better?

These mega projects carry massive price tags. In the case of the local sewage scheme, they spent over $42-million with nothing to show for it. In a billion dollar project, you can hide $10-million as a line item. You and I cannot part with $10-million let alone the billions here and there. What if the solution is not bigger, but smaller? What if we’re looking looking for mega- but micro- is the solution that does us the most good?

Godzilla is a fantasy movie because how big that lizard is. Some things do not scale. For Godzilla to actually walk this Earth, we would have to mainline butter for calories, his bones would have to be stronger than steel. His heart would pump a geyser of blood. In short big becomes impossible. We seem to think that finances when they get big, they get better. The idea of economy of scale and so on. What if a Godzilla sized financial project has Godzilla sized challenges? What is smaller is more realistic. What if we look to discrete solutions?

Instead of relying on centralized power grids to light our homes; miles of pipes to bring us water; and billion dollar sewage systems, what if we looked to furnish those solutions close to home? Some ways to get discrete:
  • Put a photovoltaic solar array on your roof or even on your balcony. If one is wired into the home’s electricity, that puts it into the general power grid. Some will wire the solar cells into dedicated system (eg. solar could go to air conditioning).
  • Put a solar water heater on the roof. These only work in times of good weather, but people always need hot water.
  • Try micro-hydro. If you have a nearby running water source, a micro-hydro set-up can cost as little as $1000 all the way up to $20,000. We live in a rainy climate, so I am going to try to build a water wheel out of salvaged parts, to see if I can turn rain fall into electricity.
  • Wind generation. Turn high winds into electricity. Wind turbines cost $1000+. The home variety are safe for birds and easy to deploy.
  • Rainwater collection. The newest terror comes from the skies-- rain! Terrible rain! Local governments have flagged that rainwater is somehow dangerous. What’s really happening is that rainfall creates storm drain volume. Storm drain volume demands maintenance of those drains. They’re sidestepping management costs by calling attention to storm runoff. Help them out: divert as much as you can into storm barrels. We have one of these in the back yard. The rainfall from a 14-foot x 10-foot roof surface entirely fills a 55-gallon barrel. With a spigot at the bottom, we have water suitable for water gardening available when we want it.
Beyond your homestead, there are ways to think smaller than the mega-project.

In the defeat of our local batch of sewage mercenaries, there’s an option on the table to explore multiple processing plants. I suggested that the cost can be diminished by passing some it onto the builders. Large outfits (large buildings, malls, subdivisions) would have to treat their sewage to a standard (ie. tertiary treatment). Any building over a square footage will require to carry out its own treatment. Neighbourhoods with many small buildings would feed into a central system for their area.

Large Federal, Provincial and Regional government offices would have to bear their own costs. Likewise, those government facilities can be ineligible for the tax credit. In addition, specialty facilities could be flagged for more stringent processing-- hospitals get all of their outflow exceptionally scrubbed. Industry could be required to scrub for the specific toxins they would otherwise introduce into the sewers. As Victoria is government-heavy, there's a lot of square footage that wouldn't get a tax break. There is precedent for Provincial government buildings in the region doing tertiary treatment of their own sewage to turn it into gray water into water for toilets and gardening.

From a jurisdictional standpoint, there is no way the municipalities and the CRD can oblige higher levels of government to act. Still, police can arrest an MLA when they commit murder. The immunity is limited While the CRD and municipalities cannot force compliance, they can opt to supply service to only compliant properties. (Cue the jokes about sewage in government offices here). If the offices do not comply, they can may continue to operate, but their tie-in to the sewage system will be deactivated for compliance reasons. In the first 5 years, the CRD could gives developers a tax credit equivalent to their sunk costs to encourage speedy installation. By the time of the sewage legislation deadline, non-compliant properties will get fined. After 5 years, the tax credit diminishes annually towards nothing after 20 years. That means late arrivals have to bear more cost and late arrivals could deploy better / cheaper technology when it comes time for them to break ground. As expansion and building happens, new properties do not create new burdens as they come bundled with their own solution deployment.

The CRD can buy sites for distributed plants to cover off distributed sewage treatment for neighbourhoods. The $17-million for Viewfield could have bought 34 residential properties that could have been converted to distributed plants. Changes to zoning can allow a number of residential properties to be rezoned on used for this utility. If you look at the Telus substation in Esquimalt ( 650 Head St ), it’s an example of how a distributed plant can be made to fit into the communities. Heck: build the sewage plant in the basement of a park-and-ride with only pipes and a stairway into the Earth to give it away.

By going discreet, if one of the plants fails, it allows untreated sewage to flow through. When SeaTerra’s single point of failure stopped working, their plan was to let untreated sewage flow. Such a plan would distribute the risk, the cost and the impact. Also, it could result in using existing sewers to dump treated water into the ocean. No tearing up of Dallas Rd. to replace the roads with bike lanes. No more of the idea of piping sewage inland for miles to satisfy optics and nimbys.

We can detach from the mega structure mindset.

Last updated date

Friday, May 30, 2014 - 00:30