Canada’s coming $50-billion hydro boom brings environmental perils, too

Will Brawn
This Magazine
Date published: 
Wed, 2011-09-07

Canada is a nation of wild, legendary rivers. The Mackenzie, the Fraser, the Churchill, and dozens more all empty into our national identity. They flow through our landscape, history, and imagination. They are vital to any history textbook, Group of Seven exhibit, or gift-shop postcard rack.

Canada is also a nation of river-tamers. We revere our waterways—but we also dam them. Trudeau canoed the epic Nahanni and two years later presided over the opening of the mammoth Churchill Falls hydroelectric dam in Labrador. We are, as the Canadian Hydropower Association says, a “hydro superpower.” Almost 60 percent of our electricity supply comes from dams—compared to just 16 percent globally—and only China squeezes more electricity out of its rivers than we do.

The heyday of big dam construction in Canada began around the late 1950s. What followed was an exhibition of progress in the raw. Surveyors and bulldozers headed to the frontier. Mighty men tamed mighty rivers. Engineering prowess replaced natural grandeur.

As rock was blasted and cement poured, legacies were forged, both geographical and political. In Manitoba, the two largest rivers and three of the five largest lakes were dramatically re-engineered. In Quebec, 571 dams and control structures have altered the flow of 74 rivers.

The construction phase lasted through the ’80s, then slowed, even though the country’s hydro potential had only been half tapped. Now, after two decades of limited construction—with the exception of Hydro-Québec, which kept on building—the dam-builders are rumbling to life again.

In the next 10 to 15 years, Canadian utilities will spend $55 to $70 billion on new hydroelectric projects. This would add 14,500 megawatts to Canada’s existing 71,000 megawatts of hydroelectric capacity. Most new projects are in Quebec (4,570 MW), B.C. (3,341 MW), Labrador (3,074 MW), and Manitoba (2,380 MW). The largest of these, Labrador’s 2,250 MW Gull Island project, will produce as much power as 750 train locomotives.

Five hydro megaprojects to watch.

The extent and cost of construction will vary over time, but one thing is certain: the push for more hydro is on.

Most of these projects are driven in large part by the prospect of exporting power to the U.S. American interest in hydropower is linked, in part, to its low cost and its low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In this context, the push for more hydro is also a push by the industry to position its product as an answer to climate change.

Jacob Irving heads the Canadian Hydropower Association, which represents the interests of the hydro industry. He says hydropower is “a very strong climate change solution,” because it can displace the use of coal and natural gas to generate electricity. The argument is simple and compelling: use more hydropower, use less fossil fuel. The industry especially touts exports of hydro to the U.S., where 600 coal-fired plants produce 45 percent of the nation’s electricity, with another 24 percent fuelled by natural gas. The CHA says hydro exports already reduce continental emissions by half a million tons a year. They want that number to grow.

Given the dire climate prognosis—emissions in Canada, the U.S., and everywhere else are well above levels in 1990, the year used as a benchmark in the Kyoto Accord—the urgency of reducing fossil-fuel consumption is great. Perhaps Canada’s wild rivers, if harnessed, can be our gift to a warming world. Maybe a concrete edifice nestled in a river valley is just as quintessentially Canadian as a lone paddler on a pristine river.

This presents a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too scenario for Canadian utilities. They can build more dams—obviously still a cornerstone of the corporate culture—cash in on lucrative exports, and enjoy eco-hero status. But is damming more of our rivers an optimal strategy for addressing climate change?

Despite the virtues of hydro power, dams can only reduce emissions indirectly. Their climate value hinges in part on the extent to which they substitute for fossilfuel-fired generation, as opposed to displacing nuclear, wind, or other sources. Though displacement is hard to prove, Irving reasons that “were we not to be sending that electricity down to the United States, the next most logical source of generation to meet their load requirements would generally be natural gas and/or coal.” The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) actually predicts that over the next 25 years, 11 percent of new generation in the U.S. will be coal-fired and 60 percent natural gas (which is roughly half as bad as coal in terms of emissions).

In Canada, most new hydro projects are located in provinces with minimal fossil-fuel-fired generation, so limited displacement will happen here. Exceptions are Ontario, Labrador (where 102 MW will be displaced), Nova Scotia (which will import from Labrador), and possibly Saskatchewan, which could use hydro from Manitoba.

While the fossil-fuel displacement argument has obvious merit, it also has weaknesses. Utilities can argue that hydro exports help save the planet, but critics can say these exports just keep the most wasteful society on earth air-conditioned and recharged. They can say that hydro exports just feed an addiction with more and more cheap power, every kilowatt of which reduces the imperative to curb consumption. The basic argument is that reducing demand must be the obvious and dominant priority in energy policy, rather than endlessly ramping up supply.

Government agencies predict electricity demand in Canada will grow almost 10 percent between now and 2020, and in the U.S. by approximately 30 percent between now and 2035. Ralph Torrie says we can and must go in the opposite direction. “We could double the efficiency with which we use fuel and electricity in Canada,” he says. If you want to see how it’s done, he adds, “just take a vacation to Europe.” Torrie, whose energy expertise is internationally recognized, serves as managing director of the Vancouver-based Trottier Energy Futures Project. In contrast to Irving, who accepts that demand for electricity will grow, Torrie advocates a “new way of thinking about the energy future.”

“There is no demand for electricity,” he says. “Nobody wants a kilowatt hour in their living room.” We want the services that electricity can provide, and we must “focus on how we can best meet the underlying needs for amenity with less rather than more fuel and electricity.” That, he says, is the only hope for “anything we might call a sustainable energy future.”

“We waste half the hydro we produce,” says John Bennett, who heads the Sierra Club of Canada. The solution to climate change is “to use less energy,” he says. “That’s where the major investment should be.”

Torrie says large hydro is environmentally preferable to many forms of energy supply, but still, reducing demand can achieve the same thing at a lower cost, and without the decade-long turnaround time for planning and construction. He views conservation as a resource. “There’s almost always a kilowatt of electricity that can be saved for a smaller cost than building the ability to generate a new kilowatt.” Plus, the resource gets bigger with every new innovation in efficiency. As Torrie puts it, “The size of the resource goes up every time somebody has a bright idea.”

Cutting electricity demand by half would include a range of technologies, including LED lighting, sensor-driven smart controls that reduce daytime lighting in buildings, and continued improvements to virtually every device that uses electricity.

But even if we as a continent cut our energy use by half, we still need some energy—and should not a maximum amount of that come from low-emission hydro? Can’t conservation and new hydro be dual priorities?

According to energy consultant Phillipe Dunsky, total spending on efficiency and conservation programs in Canada is only about $1 billion per year. Despite that, Jacob Irving says, “energy conservation has to be forefront of all decisions.” Then he adds a caveat: “There’s a lot of analysis that says energy consumption will grow, and so we need to be ready for that.” Whether demand shrinks or expands, the simple prohydro argument—more hydro equals less fossil fuel— still stands.

But for Tony Maas, who works for the Canadian branch of the World Wildlife Fund, it’s not that simple. He says new hydro projects must be part of an overarching plan for “net reduction in GHG emissions.” He cites Ontario’s Green Energy Act as an example of a plan that commits to overall GHG reduction.

But, as John Bennett points out, “we don’t have a North American plan to reduce emissions,” so new hydro projects “can’t be part of that plan.” The EIA predicts that without policy change, coal use as well as GHG emissions from electricity generation, will continue to increase over the next 25 years. Bennett says building more dams to meet increasing demand is like doubling the fuel efficiency of cars so that people can drive twice as much.

In a release this April, Hydro-Québec, Canada’s largest generator and exporter of hydropower, said, “The major environmental challenge facing North America is to replace coal to generate power and oil used in transportation.” While climate change may be the “major” environmental challenge of the day, it is not the only one. Just because hydro dams do not have highly visible carbon-spewing smoke stacks does not necessarily make them environmentally friendly. Behind the question of whether dams are a climate solution lies a more fundamental question: is hydro actually clean, as utilities and governments regularly assert?

Jacob Irving says, “When people refer to [hydro] as clean, it’s in the context of air emissions.” But rarely is this specified. The categorical use of the term by utilities, without caveat or qualification, is misleading. Tony Maas says he gets “nervous” when hydro is called clean because “it almost implies there are no impacts.” But dams harm the environment. A dam is not an environmental improvement or solution for a watershed.

One of the main impacts is the disruption of the natural “flow regime” in a waterway. Maas says the natural fluctuations in water levels are the “master variable in organizing a river ecosystem,” giving key “cues” to other species. Thus, a WWF report says, “Dams destroy the ecology of river systems by changing the volume, quality, and timing of water flows downstream.” The evidence of this is visible in dammed Canadian rivers, as it is in the hundreds of millions of dollars paid to mitigate and compensate for damages caused by dams. Manitoba Hydro alone has spent over $700 million to address damages from its “clean” hydro projects.

The WWF takes a more nuanced approach. It says some hydro projects can be built without unacceptable harm, but its 2011 global energy plan still “severely restrict[s] future growth of hydro power to reflect the need for an evolution that respects existing ecosystems and human rights.”

Similarly, a 2011 report about Canada’s boreal forests by the Pew Environment Group considers both pros and cons of hydro. In a section about hydro called “How Green Is It?”, the report says:

Although [hydro dams] are comparatively low carbon emitters in comparison to many conventional energy sources, hydropower projects have resulted in significant impacts to wildlife habitat, ecological processes and aboriginal communities.

In a later section, the report states:

While it is clear that allowing our societies to be powered by carbon fuels is not sustainable, this does not mean that alternative or renewable energy sources can simply be viewed as having no cost whatsoever.

The report, entitled “A Forest of Blue,” does not offer a simple verdict. Rather, it says, “We must understand as many of the implications and complexities of the issues as possible.” The candour and openness to complexity demonstrated in the report are exactly what is needed in the assessment of any climate-change strategy.

In keeping with the Pew report’s frank and thorough nature, it also discusses the role Aboriginal peoples play in hydro development. This is an essential part of any discussion of hydropower in Canada since virtually all hydro projects occupy lands to which First Nations have rights. In the past, Aboriginal people vehemently (and mostly unsuccessfully) opposed major dams. That has changed: in some cases Aboriginal opposition has succeeded. The $5 billion, 1,250 MW Slave River project in Alberta has been “deferred” after project proponents were unable to reach a deal with Smith’s Landing First Nation last year.

The proposed Site C Dam, a 1,100 MW, $7.9 billion project planned for the Peace River in B.C., faces resolute opposition from four First Nations in the area. But the outcome of that David-and-Goliath battle will not be know for some time.

Elsewhere, opposition has given way to participation—David and Goliath have become allies. Most recently, members of the Innu Nation in Labrador voted in June to allow the massive Lower Churchill River projects—Muskrat Falls (824 MW) and Gull Island (2,250 MW)—to proceed. In exchange, the 2,800 Innu receive $5 million per year to assist with their process costs during and prior to construction, up to $400 million in contracts during construction, and share of project profits thereafter (5 percent of “After Debt Net Cashflow”).

The broad Tshash Petapen (New Dawn) Agreement, in which these provisions are contained, also includes an agreement in principle on land claims and $2 million a year as compensation for damages related to the existing Upper Churchill Falls dam.

Meanwhile, the Inuit (distinct from the Innu), who are concerned about downstream impacts in their territory, say they have been largely left out of the process.

In Quebec, the James Bay Cree receive over $100 million a year in hydro, forestry, and mining royalties as a result of the 2002 Peace of the Braves agreement. In it they consented to the Eastmain-1-A/Sarcelle/Rupert Project (918 MW) while securing the permanent abandonment of the Nottaway-Broadback-Rupert project, which would have flooded 6,000 square kilometres.

First Nations near proposed dam sites in Manitoba have been offered lump-sum compensation packages, along with the opportunity to invest in projects. For instance, the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, with its 4,500 members, will be entitled to a third of the profits of the nearly completed Wuskwatim Dam if they can come up with a third of the $1.3 billion cost of the dam. They also benefit from $60 million of employment training.

In June, four other First Nations joined Manitoba Hydro in announcing the start of construction on the 695 MW, $5.6 billion Keeyask dam. Like Nisichawayasihk, they will be offered the chance to invest in the dam, as well as employment opportunities.

What’s clear in all these cases is that Canadian utilities cannot ignore Aboriginal demands. “We can stop development,” says Ovide Mercredi, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and the recently retired Chief of the Misipawistik Cree Nation in northern Manitoba. His community sits right next to the 479 MW Grand Rapids Dam, which floods 115,700 hectares. In reference to the water flowing through that dam, Mercredi’s message to the province is simple: “That’s not your water, it belongs to our people and we want a share of that money.” The dam’s 50-year provincial licence expires in 2015 and Mercredi wants licence renewal to be contingent on public acknowledgement of the harm, increased mitigation of damages, and a revenue-sharing agreement. In part, the message is that if utilities do not deal with Aboriginal concerns now, they will have to later.

Whether First Nations are defiant or eager for new dams to power their economic future, the broader environmental questions remain. While Aboriginal influence has led to a reduction in the size of dams and increased environmental mitigation, and First Nations consent improves the general ethical perception of a project, there is still no tidy way to pour thousands of tons of cement into a river.

No matter who is involved, the merit of the case for hydro as a climate solution can be tested by the assumptions it rests on. These assumptions are that hydro is clean; that demand for electricity will grow; and that the primary alternative to more hydro is fossil-fuel generation. Are these solutions part of the solution or the problem?

Ultimately, the solution to climate change, as well as to watershed health, may never be found unless we move past these assumptions and replace them with better, more accurate premises.

First, dams are not green or clean in themselves. To disrupt the flow of a river and blaze a transmission corridor through kilometres of forest is, in itself, bad for the biosphere. To solve one environmental problem (global warming) with another (pouring hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cement in a free-flowing river) is counterintuitive. That said, desperate circumstances may require desperate measures.

Second, energy demand can and must be substantially reduced. The logical outcome of letting demand increase indefinitely and meeting that demand with ever more hydro and other renewables is to have every river dammed, the landscape saturated with wind and solar farms, and consumption still increasing. The ultimate, unavoidable solution is to use less energy. This must be the dominant priority.

Finally, dams do not reduce GHG emissions per se. They increase energy supply. Apart from a demonstrated continental commitment to dramatically reduce emissions (and energy demand), the case for hydro as a climate solution is, for the industry, a rather convenient truth. Hydropower can’t be part of the climate-change solution if there is no solution.

Climate change is one of humanity’s greatest challenges, and to address it we may need to conjure greater creativity than just reviving electricity generation megaprojects conceived of decades ago. Dan McDermott of the Sierra Club’s Ontario Chapters says, “The age of big dams is over.” According to him, hydro proponents “have their heads turned backwards attempting to mortgage the future to maintain the past.”

The large hydro projects currently in the works were envisioned before global warming concerned anyone, in an era summed up by former Manitoba premier Duff Roblin when he rose in the legislature in 1966 and prophesied a grandiose future for hydropower, saying, “We can have our cake, we can eat it and we can make a bigger cake, and sell part of that.”

Though hydro prospects are framed differently now, dam proponents still appear to share Roblin’s belief in limitless, consequence-free development. Now the question of whether taming more of our iconic rivers will help the climate becomes a question of whether Roblin was right.


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