Forrest Kerr: A Profile of Canadian Hydropower Development

As one of three newly constructed AltaGas projects in the Pacific Northwest, the 195-MW Forrest Kerr hydropower project is set to be commissioned this summer. It is one of the largest single intake run-of-river projects in North America.

By Bethany Duarte

Located in northern British Columbia, Canada, AltaGas’ 195-MW Forrest Kerr hydropower project is on track to be commissioned later this summer. The project highlights the importance of community engagement, on-site management and aboriginal involvement in successful hydropower development.

Forrest Kerr is one of three run-of-river projects owned by AltaGas along the Iskut River, totaling 277 MW. All three projects – Forrest Kerr, 66-MW McLymont Creek and 16-MW Volcano Creek – were developed under long-term energy purchase agreements with BC Hydro and Impact Benefit Agreements with the Tahltan First Nations. AltaGas has a 60-year CPI-indexed energy purchase agreement for Forrest Kerr, signed in May 2010. Because the project area is also the traditional territory of the First Nations, this agreement outlines how AltaGas will work with the First Nation during development, construction and operation.

The 195-MW Forrest Kerr project, being constructed in northern British Columbia, is nearly complete.
The 195-MW Forrest Kerr project, being constructed in northern British Columbia, is nearly complete.

The total investment for the three plants was $1 billion, 25 million of that for Forrest Kerr, and construction started in 2010. Volcano Creek is to be commissioned later this year, with McLymont Creek following in 2015.

AltaGas is a North American energy infrastructure company. Its business operates in the U.S. and Canada focuses on the supply and demand dynamic of power by owning and operating assets in gas, power and utilities, including hydropower. The three projects under construction are AltaGas’ flagship hydropower developments.

Development timeline

The site of the Forrest Kerr project was first investigated by BC Hydro in the 1970s, with the goal of building a large dam impounding water for an 800-MW hydro plant. Due to geotechnical and public concerns around flooding a large part of the upper Iskut Valley, this plan was abandoned. It was reconsidered in the mid-1990s when a local mining operation needed a power supply equivalent to a plant with a capacity of 30 MW. This also was not pursued.

In the early 2000s, Coast Mountain Hydro initiated an investigation to develop the site, resulting in the approval for a 112-MW facility in 2003. In 2006, NovaGold acquired Coast Mountain, which was struggling to finance the project to support a mine development. In 2008, Coast Mountain and its assets were acquired by AltaGas Ltd.

By 2010, AltaGas had picked up the torch on utilizing the Forrest Kerr site. The project was reworked and reconfigured as a larger project at 195 MW. An energy purchase agreement was in place with BC Hydro and a participation agreement signed with the Tahltan First Nation shortly after. Midway through that year, construction on the project began.

Construction process

Many companies were involved in the project design for Forrest Kerr, including Hatch and Northwest Hydraulics. Hatch actually initiated the 195-MW redesign in 2007 and 2008 when the project was still owned by NovaGold and is credited as the primary designer. Northwest Hydraulics also contributed heavily by conducting computer and physical modeling of intake and desanding structures, as well as helping with the design of those structures. The company also assisted with environmental permitting efforts by conducting hydrology and geomorphology assessments.

The electrical installation was handled by BV Electric, and the environmental monitoring, permitting compliance, and construction monitoring were performed by Ecofish research and Ecodynamics.

Challenges faced and keys to success

The location of the project was perhaps the most immediate challenge.

Investigations of the topography indicated that an underground powerhouse would be the most effective option, prompting further geotechnical investigation. There were some issues with poor-quality rock around the intake structure, which required more extensive excavation and grouting than originally planned. There have been no geotechnical issues since then.

The powerhouse is 144 m long, 27 m tall, and 17 m wide, with nine horizontal Francis turbine-generating units, each with a capacity of 22 MW. The turbines were supplied by Andritz Hydro.

The nearly finished underground powerhouse is shown above, 144 m in length, 27 m in height, and 17 meters in width, complete with nine 22-MW horizontal Francis turbines.
The nearly finished underground powerhouse is shown above, 144 m in length, 27 m in height, and 17 meters in width, complete with nine 22-MW horizontal Francis turbines.

The environmental assessment process was a challenge as there was some opposition from non-governmental organizations, due in part to several fish-sensitive sections of the river downstream from the tailrace. To maintain clear environmental mitigation standards, a multiple turbine configuration was used and a fishway was included so the project was strategically designed to minimize impacts. Despite some scrutiny by the First Nations during the planning process, up-front honesty and regular status updates ensured accountability and also kept the community well-informed.

From the environmental assessment process to answering questions from members of the community who had concerns about the impact to the surrounding area, early and ongoing community engagement played a vital role in the successful development of the project. Consistent engagement with the First Nations alleviated concerns and demonstrated AltaGas’ commitment to mitigating negative risks to the land.

On the positive side, open communication that included regular community newsletters, web posting and community meetings was instrumental in keeping everyone informed. The project opened the door for local job opportunities. During construction, 30% of the open jobs were filled by local First Nation members.

Forrest Kerr will channel a portion of the Iskut River flow through a tunnel to an underground powerhouse, where it will pass through the turbines to produce electricity before it is returned to the river.

Construction of the site was made more challenging due to the remote nature of the plant, located six hours from the closest community. To attract and house the workforce needed for the project, AltaGas constructed a fully self-contained, remote camp for about 350 people. The camp is fully functional, with generators providing electricity to complete the many tasks. The remoteness of the camp left it exposed to the occasional bad weather and flooding of Northern British Columbia, but there was not extensive damage to access roads leading to the camp.

To maintain positive morale and a strong workforce, strict camp policies were enacted, including a “no-alcohol, no-drugs” policy. The overall attitude AltaGas took toward developing the camp is best captured in a comment by Dan Woznow, vice president of energy exports: “People don’t like being there if it’s not a good camp. Having good food and maintaining a healthy work environment ensures people enjoy working there, which keeps productivity high.”

This positive work environment was helpful in terms of recruiting and keeping good workers who came from across Canada to participate in development of the project.

The remoteness of the project also required a strong management team fully equipped to make important decisions about the development in a timely manner on-site. The management team at Forrest Kerr was fully authorized to make decisions without seeking authorization from those not on-site, thus enabling a higher level of efficiency and proactive responses.

“If rivers rise, rocks can collapse. You’ve got to be able to make quick decisions on site,” said Woznow.

Development lessons

As the project nears completion, the most important lessons learned included the importance of constant engagement with the community, which helps to soothe concern while promoting the positive elements of the development; authorizing the on-site management team to make decisions in the moment they are needed; and putting the well-being and morale of the workers at a high priority, especially in the case of a remote camp where high morale results in higher productivity. These lessons are applicable across a number of AltaGas developments and hydropower construction in general.

In late April, AltaGas announced the start of water flow at Forrest Kerr. The next step is to complete full-speed, no-load testing on the turbines and auxiliary systems. Final commissioning is expected to take place over the summer once the BC Hydro Northwest Transmission line is completed.

Technical details

Forrest Kerr hydro

– 100 m gross head, 252 m3/sec design flow
– 9 22-MW horizontal Francis turbines
– 2 weirs, 10 m long and 7 m wide
– More than 5 km of tunnels, largest is 3 km long and 10 m in diameter
– Underground powerhouse – 144 m x 27 m x 17 m
– 40 km, 287-kV transmission line
– Capital cost estimate: 25 million

Bethany Duarte is associate editor of Hydro Review.


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