Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett speaking at Catalyst Paper's distribution centre on the Fraser River in Surrey Thursday.

Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett speaking at Catalyst Paper's distribution centre on the Fraser River in Surrey Thursday.

Pulp mills get break to save energy

Province unveils $100 million to help industry finance conservation projects as power rates hikes loom

Struggling B.C. pulp and paper mills are being offered $100 million in energy conservation subsidies that Energy Minister Bill Bennett says will pay off through power savings and a stabilized industry.

The three-year initiative will benefit seven thermo-mechanical pulp or paper mills run by Catalyst Paper, Canfor, West Fraser and Paper Excellence, which can get 75 per cent funding for energy-saving projects approved under the new PowerSmart program for industry.

The companies are huge power users, consuming 10 per cent of the electricity BC Hydro sells, and had warned rate increases of 28 per cent over the next five years could threaten their operations and cost local jobs.

Eligible mills are in Crofton, Port Alberni (a paper mill), Powell River, Taylor, Chetwynd, Port Mellon and Quesnel.

The industry’s challenges cast a long shadow in those towns, where pulp and paper jobs are critical to the local economy, and one of the firms – Catalyst – has been emerging from bankruptcy protection.

Encouraging reinvestment in power efficiency will mean savings for the companies involved, Bennett said, and will reduce provincial energy demand.

“BC Hydro will not have to spend $265 million on new generation because these four companies are going to conserve that much electricity,” Bennett said, adding it will also help protect thousands of jobs across the province.

Catalyst Paper president Joe Nemeth said steam now vented at the firm’s Powell River mill will be harnessed for power, reducing the plant’s draw on the grid.

“Electricity is about 30 per cent of our cost structure, so it’s a big deal,” he said.

The upgrades are expected to mean power cost savings of $17.5 million a year for the four companies.

NDP energy critic Adrian Dix said the province had no other choice but to step in with aid for the industry in light of the dramatic rate increases ahead.

“This was just going to bury them,” he said.

But Dix said government “incompetence” is to blame for the coming rate shock because of expensive power purchase deals, repeatedly deferred spending, among other decisions at BC Hydro.

“This is them desperately trying to deal with a problem they caused through inept energy policy in the past.”

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