Canada Looks to Expand Hydro Exports to US

Will Braun
Monday, March 5, 2012

Nistowiak Falls, Churchill River. The river has seen two-thirds of its flow diverted for hydropower.
Nistowiak Falls, Churchill River. The river has seen two-thirds of its flow diverted for hydropower.
Photo ©: Ross Barclay

Canada is a nation of wild, legendary rivers. From east to west to north, dozens of huge, storied rivers empty into the country's identity, flowing through the landscape, history and imagination of the nation.

Canada is also a nation of river-tamers. While Canadians revere their waterways, they also dam them. Canada is a “hydro superpower.” Almost 60% of Canada's electricity supply comes from dams, compared to just 16% globally. Only China and Brazil squeeze more megawatts out of their rivers.

Now, Canada is embarking on a new wave of dam building. The Canadian hydropower industry plans to spend C$55-70 billion on hydroelectric dams across the country in the next 10 to 15 years. They claim that the resulting energy – much of which will be exported to the U.S. – will displace dirtier forms of energy and reduce continental greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Yet Canadian river advocates and some energy experts are questioning the wisdom of building more environmentally damaging dams in Canada as an answer to the dirty energy problems in the US. They say a better answer to the challenges we face is more efficient use of existing energy.

According to data compiled from utility and government sources, the proposed dams will boost Canadian hydro capacity from 74,000 megawatts to about 88,500 megawatts.
Major projects in the works include the Site C dam in the west coast province of B.C., three dams in the central province of Manitoba, three projects in the eastern province of Quebec, and the Muskrat Falls dam in the eastern region of Labrador.

The projects involve significant alterations to remote rivers and in some cases also rely on existing reservoirs and diversions. The 1,100-megawatt Site C dam on the Peace River would create a reservoir 83 kilometers long and two to three times the width of the river. It would also take advantage of a 1,660-square kilometer reservoir upstream.

The three dams in northern Manitoba – designed to produce 2,380 megawatts – would flood about 50 square kilometers of land. More significantly, they all plug into an existing hydroelectric complex that involves diverting three quarters of the flow of the sizable Churchill River along a 300-kilometer diversion route. This diversion floods over 800 square kilometers of land and severely harms aquatic and riparian ecosystems over an immense area. Much of this damage remains unaddressed.

The Rupert River is threatened by three dams.
The Rupert River is threatened by three dams.
Photo ©: Suzanne Levasseur

The three projects in Quebec will create reservoirs and diversion bays covering 619 square kilometers and divert 71% of the Rupert River at a point 314 kilometers from its mouth. The projects would produce a combined 3,668 megawatts of power.

The 824-megawatt Muskrat Falls project in Labrador would flood 41 square kilometers. Indigenous people downstream of the dam are concerned about the possibility of increased mercury levels in the water and changes to the seasonal water regime.

In all cases, project proponents insist that measures will be put in place to minimize environmental impacts. In most cases, local indigenous governments are partners in the developments, marking a major shift from the past.

Canada's hydropower boom is driven largely by the prospect of export sales. In the first two thirds of 2011, Canadian utilities exported 36.3 terawatt hours of electricity – mostly hydroelectricity – to the U.S. (roughly equal to the output of a 7,500-megawatt dam). That number will increase dramatically if the proposed dams are built.

Hydropower proponents say these exports will displace carbon-intensive forms of energy in the U.S., where 600 coal-fired generating plants  burn nearly a billion tons of coal a year. Those plants account for 45% of U.S. electricity generation. Another 24% comes from natural gas-fired plants, which are roughly half as bad as coal in terms of emissions. Alternatives are needed.  
But the argument for more Canadian hydropower exports to the U.S. becomes shakier when one examines the assumptions upon which it is based: 1.) that demand for electricity will continue to grow; 2) that the primary alternative to more hydro is more fossil fuel; 3) that hydropower necessarily reduces GHG emissions, and 4) that hydropower is clean.

John Bennett, who heads the Sierra Club of Canada, said, "We [Canadians] waste half the hydro we produce" and believes the "major investment" should be energy conservation and efficiency. The solution to climate change is "to use less energy," not to build mega-projects that increase supply.

Ralph Torrie, an internationally recognized energy expert, agrees that cutting North American energy consumption in half is both necessary and possible. "There's almost always a kilowatt of electricity that can be saved for a smaller cost than building a plant to generate a new kilowatt," Torrie said. Plus, the resource gets bigger with every new innovation in efficiency. He advocates reducing energy demand through the use of more efficient means to meet virtually all the needs electricity serves.

Unlike the Canadian hydropower industry, which accepts the standard predictions that electricity consumption in Canada and the U.S. will grow by about 1% annually in the coming decade, Torrie and Bennett do not accept the dangerous assumption of ever-increasing demand.
Nor do they accept the assumption that fossil fuels are the primary alternative to hydropower, instead of conservation and efficiency.

The third assumption supporting the argument that dams address climate change is that dams reduce GHG emissions. This belief is implied in industry assertions about hydropower displacing coal. But dams do not reduce GHG emissions per se, they increase energy supply.
Bennett insists that if dams are included in a North American response to climate change – which seems likely – they must at least be in the context of a clear, broader plan to reduce continental emissions. Then displacement could be assured. But no such bigger plan exists, Bennett said, and emissions in both Canada and the U.S. remain above 1990 levels, the benchmark set in the Kyoto Accord.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that in the absence of policy change, the use of coal generation will continue to increase over the next 25 years as will national GHG emissions.

The argument that hydropower is part of the solution to climate change falls apart in the absence of any such solution. Currently, increased hydropower is simply met with increased energy demand, increased coal use, and increased global temperatures.

While utilities claim hydropower displaces coal, critics can say that every additional kilowatt of  [redundant] power simply postpones the ultimate necessity of addressing inefficiency and energy addiction.

The final assumption undergirding the argument for more exports of Canadian hydropower is that hydro is clean. Jacob Irving, who heads the Canadian Hydropower Association, said, “When people refer to [hydro] as clean, it’s in the context of air emissions.” But often utilities use the term “clean” categorically, without caveat or qualification.  This is misleading. Just because dams do not have carbon-spewing smokestacks does not make them clean. A dam is not an environmental improvement or favor to a watershed, as the assertions of cleanliness almost suggests.

Canadian dams permanently flood forest lands, negatively impact water quality and disturb the fragile ecological balance of highly productive riparian zones. The ecological decline they cause is ongoing and cumulative. Tony Maas, who works for the Canadian branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said the natural fluctuations in water levels are the “master variable in organizing a river ecosystem,” giving key “cues” to other species. 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 C$700 million to address damages from its "clean" hydro projects.

A 2011 report about Canada’s boreal forests by the Pew Environment Group considers both pros and cons of hydro. The report says that although hydropower projects are "comparatively low carbon emitters in comparison to many conventional energy sources," they cause "significant impacts to wildlife habitat, ecological processes and aboriginal communities."

The argument for hydropower as a climate solution tends to dodge these complex trade-offs, relying rather on over-simplified assumptions. In response to one of humanity's greatest challenges, the hydropower industry simply offers the revival of energy mega-projects first conceived of decades ago. While a case can be made for spending tens of billions of dollars to increase exports of hydropower from Canada to the U.S., the stronger case is for making conservation the dominant, immediate energy priority. That is the only way to ensure that Canada doesn’t become an enabler of a notoriously wasteful continent  that is fiddling while the planet burns.  

Will Braun works for the Interfaith Task Force on Northern Hydro Development in Winnipeg, Canada ( A version of this article first appeared in This Magazine.