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Lower Churchill Hydro - Green Power or Greenwash?

The Lower Churchill Hydroelectric Project proposes to generate over 3200 megawatts (MW) from the Grand River in Labrador.

The proposed project will require constructing two dams, one at Muskrat Falls and another at Gull Island. Muskrat Falls is ~15 m waterfall on the Grand River located west of Happy Valley - Goose Bay. The proposed dam at Muskrat Falls will create a reservoir that will be 59 km long and flood 41 km² of land to generate 824 megawatts of electricity. The Gull Island dam will create a reservoir that is 232 km long, and flood 85 km² of land to generate 2,250 megawatts of electricity.

View Lower Churchill Hydroelectric Project in a larger map

There are several questions that the Sierra Club Canada has about this project, which we will be exploring as participants in environmental assessment of this project.

1.  Is large-scale hydro 'green power'?

The Lower Churchill hydro project is being touted as a green power project. It is not!

The Climate Action Network (CANet), a wordwide network of over 400 non-governmental organizations combating climate change, has stated:

"Hydro destroys carbon sinks, generates methane and is not a solution to climate change. Therefore CANet does not support new industrial hydro projects nor new diversion projects.

Industrial Hydro is not "green", not climate-friendly, not renewable and not acceptable unless:

  • the run of the river is maintained

  • no diversions

  • no interbasin transfer of water

  • no flow modifications (annual cycle)

  • no reservoirs

  • does not interfere with fish runs."

The Lower Churchill is not a run of river proposal. The flow modification will reverse the normal annual cycle on the river. It will result in higher winter flows and lower flows in spring and summer. Two new reservoirs will be created. Fish runs will be obstructed.

The UN World Commission on Dams ( has stated:

"Opponents contend that better, cheaper, more benign options for meeting water and energy needs exist and have been frequently ignored, from small-scale, decentralised water supply and electricity options to large-scale end-use efficiency and demand-side management options. Dams, it is argued, have often been selected over other options that may meet water or energy goals at lower cost or that may offer development benefits that are more sustainable and more equitable.

Sedimentation and the consequent long-term loss of storage is a serious concern globally, and the effects will be particularly felt by basins with high geological or human-induced erosion rates, dams in the lower reaches of rivers and dams with smaller storage volumes."

2.  Is there a need for the power generated by the project?

The company proposing to build the Lower Churchill, Nalcor, estimates optimistically that Newfoundland and Labrador will need an additional 275 megawatts of power in the next 25 years. Aggressive demand-side management, or reducing the need for power, by increasing efficiency in domestic and industrial sectors has not been meaningfully explored. This option would not only meet projected need but employ more people across the province than the current proposal.

3.  Have alternatives been adequately evaluated?

As well as the demand-side management (energy conservation and efficiency) options, Nalcor, the Newfoundland and Labrador energy agency, has not adequately considered a proposal by the Metis Nation to produce 1000 megawatts of wind energy in Labrador.

This proposal and other wind energy projects complementing existing hydro, can easily meet the future energy demands for the province.

4.  Is there a market and capacity to transmit the power generated by the Lower Churchill to market?

The major market for the proposed project, New England, wants clean green energy. Recently, New York state has refused to purchase large hydro power from Quebec because it is not green energy.

New Englanders, like most consumers, will invest heavily in demand side management (DSM), or reducing the need for power, rather than looking to expand supply. DSM is a win-win-win solution to greenhouse gas reduction. Importing utilities win, the consumer wins and the environment wins.

Besides, there is currently no way deliver the proposed energy to market. The agreement with hydro Quebec to 'wheel' 1000 MW through Quebec fills the current capacity of the Quebec grid. The remaining 2200 MW is stranded.

Nalcor has registered a second proposal to send 1800 megawatts via subsea cables to the Island of Newfoundland. The two high voltage direct current (HVdc) lines across the Strait of Belle Isle will cost over a billion dollars to construct.

To deliver this energy to market will require another subsea cable across the Cabot Straight to Nova Scotia. There is currently no proposal or costing of this option.

The only other alternative requires building another power line through Quebec with the cost and 'wheeling' rights through Quebec.

5.  Is this proposal economically viable?

This project is a huge economic boondoggle.

Nalcor has not identified markets willing to buy dirty hydro.

Nalcor has split the project's environmental assessment to avoid detailing the full cost of producing and delivering the power to market. The cost of constructing the subsea cables to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia will be over two billion dollars. The full costs of the project may exceed four billion dollars with no guaranteed markets or indication of the rate of return.

6.  Will this project be socially equitable?

The UN World Commission On Dams has stated:

"Lack of equity in the distribution of benefits has called into question the value of many dams in meeting water and energy development needs when compared with the alternatives."

In commenting on the UN World Commission On Dams report the James Bay Cree have said:

"Deprived of adequate lands and resources, we now endure mass poverty and unemployment, ill health including epidemics of infectious disease and suicide, and crises of hopelessness and despair. Moreover, promises of economic development assistance, employment, training and community development, made to us in formal treaties entered into as minimal, after-the-fact dispensations, have never been meaningfully fulfilled. This state of affairs led a June 1999 Inter-Church Inquiry into Northern Flooding to conclude, in the case of the Manitoba project affecting Pimicikamak Cree Nation, that it has been "a moral and ecological catastrophe."

Nalcor, the proponent, has not agreed to either supply small communities with power from this project or build windmills to displace the expensive diesel generation that is now the only option for these communities.


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