Question re: Low-water impact on hydroelectric power generation - May 18, 2016

Mr. Silver: Thank you, Madam Speaker. Each year, the Department of Environment publishes information on snowpack conditions. Surveys published this spring confirm what most Yukoners already observed in the wintertime, and that is that the snowpack conditions in the Whitehorse area and across the Yukon have been well below normal.

In the Southern Lakes basin, the average has been estimated to be only 48 percent of normal. This is something that I know the minister responsible for Yukon Energy Corporation is watching closely. A snowpack this low could mean that both Whitehorse and Aishihik hydro plants will not have the normal water in which to generate hydro. In normal conditions, the dam spills extra water. This year, we may not have that luxury.

Could the minister outline the impact of this year’s low snowpack on our hydro generation?

Hon. Mr. Cathers: Thank you, Madam Speaker. I’m not sure where the member is getting the figures from. The preliminary numbers that I had is that the snowpack level in the Southern Lakes was roughly 60 percent of the average, in Aishihik it was between 60 to 75 percent of average with snowpack, and the snowpack in the Mayo area was actually estimated at the time of the note being prepared at somewhere between 90 to 126 percent of average. I don’t have the final figures. If they have been released, then I will stand to be corrected on that.

What I should note as a general matter is that what is done by the Yukon Energy Corporation Board and as part of what they are required to submit to the Yukon Utilities Board, as the regulator, does include contingency plans for low-snow years — or “drought years”, as they call them because of factoring in both snow and rainfall. The impact is that, if there is not enough water in those areas, then the consequential impact can be a requirement to burn fossil fuels to supplement it. But the other part that does get a little complicated on this is that there are times in the summer when we’re spilling water through the Whitehorse facility that is not producing power because of the current demand, so I don’t have the precise figures at this time.

Mr. Silver: The information that I’m getting is from the department’s website. We are starting the season with half of the snow that we normally have. This situation could, depending on a few factors — and the minister represented factors like snowfall and also rain — include a lot of problems for next winter, not necessarily in the summer, which would mean a multi-million-dollar cost for Yukon Energy Corporation.

For example, if they don’t have enough water, they would have to run LNG or diesel. The corporation has a low-water fund that will be used first. The questions to the minister are: How much money is in that fund? Has the corporation run any numbers regarding the potential extra costs to address what looks like a very low-water year ahead of us?

Hon. Mr. Cathers: Thank you, Madam Speaker. Again, if the Department of Environment has released more updated figures than the numbers I have in front of me from Yukon Energy Corporation, I will look forward to seeing that data. The information I had was that the snowpack was estimated at a higher number than what the member has just recently indicated.

I should note that snowmelt only contributes 40 percent of the total water input into the Southern Lakes system. Input from glacial melt and rainfall contribute 60 percent of the water to the system. Based on the last note I had from Yukon Energy Corporation, even though this year the Southern Lakes show slightly below-average snowpack, they were not concerned about the amount of water available for operations this summer or this coming winter.

This was something that may stand to be updated, based also on what our rain conditions are over this year, but the most recent information I had from Yukon Energy Corporation, as of slightly earlier during this Sitting, was that the snow numbers were down because of the fact that snowmelt only contributes 40 percent of the total water input in the Southern Lakes system. They were not anticipating an impact to rates or costs at this point in time due to increased diesel or LNG use. But again, that could stand to change based upon what this summer’s weather entails.

Mr. Silver: Thank you, Madam Speaker. Instead of questioning the actual numbers, the minister could still give us the numbers here, as far as what the plan is if we do have to run the LNG because we don’t have enough water. How much money is set aside in the fund? He does know the numbers for this. This isn’t a hard question, Madam Speaker.

There is the potential for some expensive hydro bills in the future, based upon low snowpack from the year. The water basin that feeds the main power dam in Whitehorse, for example, has what we know is half of what it normally gets in the winter. There is a low-water fund in place to protect ratepayers that would be used first. I just want to know what the numbers are.

It is clear that there could potentially be extra costs on the way. Is the minister prepared? What is not clear is how much extra power would be generated. Also, in the event of more power being needed, would the Yukon Energy Corporation be meeting this demand by diesel or by LNG?

Hon. Mr. Cathers: Thank you, Madam Speaker. I think the member may not have been listening to my previous response. As I indicated, in the most recent information I have from Yukon Energy Corporation, although the total snowfall this year is down from its normal levels in the Southern Lakes district — as of the most recent note that they provided to me regarding this topic — they were not anticipating a need to burn diesel or LNG this summer or this coming winter as a result of those numbers because of the fact that snowmelt contributes only 40 percent of the total water to the source.

Because the input from glacial melt and rainfall contribute 60 percent of the incoming water to the system, the actual amounts of precipitation we receive during this summer and fall will have an effect as well. Those current predictions are subject to change based on what the weather is this summer. If we have a dry summer or if we have a rainy summer, those numbers will change.

Again, though I don’t have the exact numbers at my fingertips for the diesel contingency fund, those numbers are publicly available. They’re provided to their regulator, the Yukon Utilities Board, in each rate filing. They’re required to follow the direction of the Yukon Utilities Board, but at this point in time, they’re not expecting to dip into that fund, so I would encourage the member not to speculate too much. We will have to see what happens this year for precipitation though before we’re able to make any final predictions.