What’s the Future of Hydroelectric Power in Canada?

Emosson Reservoir in Switzerland. Photo: Martin Funk

After weeks of delay, the B.C. NDP has finally been asked to form government, thanks to a co-operation agreement with the Green Party.

A key component of that now-famous NDP-Green “confidence and supply agreement” signed in late May is its commitment to “immediately refer the Site C dam construction project to the B.C. Utilities Commission.”

While premier-delegate John Horgan hasn’t confirmed whether he will cancel the $9-billion project — it will take around six weeks for the utility commission to actually provide a preliminary report — previous statements suggest he’s certainly sympathetic to the idea.

Conflicts over hydroelectric dams aren’t confined to British Columbia: think of Labrador’s Muskrat Falls or Manitoba’s Keeyask dam. In fact, alongside oil and gas extraction projects, hydroelectric dams arguably serve as some of the most contentious projects in Canada, largely due to detrimental impacts on Indigenous lands, territories and resources and skyrocketing costs.

But hydroelectric projects are also projected to serve as fundamental components in Canada’s transition away from fossil fuels. It’s a tension that only grows by the day.

DeSmog Canada took a deep dive into some of the politics of hydro.

Hydro Expected To Increase Up to 295 Per Cent by 2050

Firstly, it’s clear that Canada needs to rapidly transition off coal, oil and gas to meet its climate change commitments. It’s also clear that shift will require a great deal more low-carbon electricity to power everything from electric cars, to public transit, to residential and commercial building heating, to industrial processes.

Dan Woynillowicz of Clean Energy Canada says in an interview with DeSmog Canada that even with very aggressive energy efficiency measures, most estimates he’s seen suggest full decarbonization will essentially double the country’s demand for electricity.

The Government of Canada’s “Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy,” published in 2016, cited projections of an increase between 113 per cent and 295 per cent in total generation between 2013 and 2050.

The obvious follow-up question is how will Canada do that?

Each of the three sources cited in the report — Trottier Energy Futures Project, the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project and Environment and Climate Change Canada — anticipate a significant increase in hydro capacity, anywhere between 36,000 megawatts of capacity in a “high nuclear scenario” up to 130,000 megawatts in a “high hydro scenario.”

Canada currently has close to 80,000 megawatts in generating capacity from hydro, making it the third largest hydro producer in the world. Woynillowicz says that, as a result, Canada has a much cleaner grid than most other countries, with 59 per cent of the country’s electricity supply already coming from hydro.

Most of the scenarios that I’ve looked at looking out to 2050 or beyond project that there would be a need for additional large hydro capacity, sometimes quite significantly and up to a doubling of current hydro capacity,” Woynillowicz says.

That said, energy analysts have had a challenge in projecting the rate of growth of wind and solar and the rate at which those technologies would actually become cost competitive or cheaper than other sources of renewable power.”

UBC Expert Argues Hydro is No Longer ‘Cleanest, Greenest' Option

Hydro is often advertised as “clean, renewable power.”

But critics suggest there are a host of major problems with the technology, including catastrophic impacts on ancestral Indigenous practices (such as hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering), the release of toxic methylmercury that can bioaccumulate in the food chain and the flooding of productive agricultural land.

That's not to mention growing concerns about greenhouse gases emitted from dams themselves. A UBC report found even using BC Hydro’s own greenhouse gas estimates for the Site C dam,  “Site C is not cleaner or greener than other renewables.” A study by a Washington State University researcher published in BioScience last year found the rate of methane emissions from hydro reservoirs was 25 per cent higher than previously estimated. The emissions come from decomposing plant material under the water.*

Karen Bakker, founding director of the water governance program at the University of British Columbia, says in an interview with DeSmog Canada that her team’s analysis of Site C that was published in five distinct reports showed that hydropower is “no longer the cleanest, or greenest, or cheapest way of meeting our future energy and capacity needs.”

It’s not that hydropower is competing against coal,” Bakker says. “It’s that it’s competing against 21st century renewables such as wind and solar.

These new technologies are the focus of rapid innovation and coming down in price and increasing in efficiency with much lower environmental impacts than hydropower. The question before us is not ‘do we build new dams to get off of fossil fuels?’ The question is, rather, ‘as we move off fossil fuels, which renewables do we pick?’ ”

Bakker says there are numerous options in B.C. for increasing generating capacity, especially in wind and geothermal. Yet she says that beyond proposed projects such as Site C and Muskrat Falls, it’s difficult to tell what the federal government’s plan is as the “mid-century plan” isn’t a legislated strategy.”

I’m not sure the government is actually planning new [hydro] capacity,” she says. “When you talk to them, they say it’s just a discussion document, although it’s called a strategy not a white paper.”

Hydro Offers ‘Dispatchable’ Power, Complementing Other Renewables

One of the major upsides of hydro is its “dispatchable” nature, meaning it can effectively be turned on or off at any point. As Woynillowicz says, this means dams can “serve as a really significant asset by playing the role of giant batteries.”

Such a trait, which can also be provided by power plants fueled by gas, nuclear and geothermal, serves as extremely complementary to “variable renewables” like wind and solar, which only produce electricity when the wind is blowing and sun shining.

Pumped-storage hydroelectricity — spinning turbines in periods of high demand and using low-cost electricity to refill the reservoir in times of low demand — can also help with that, but requires very particular conditions to work and operates with a net generation loss, costing more electricity to run than it actually produces.

Natural gas power stations have serious flaws from a greenhouse gas emissions point of view, especially given recent reports that suggest there is far more significant methane leakage from the wellhead than previously assumed. Nuclear isn’t a politically viable option in most of the country, although it produces between 50 and 60 per cent of Ontario’s electricity. Geothermal has massive potential in both B.C. and the Yukon, although neither jurisdiction has signed a power purchase agreement with a producer to date.

That effectively leaves hydro to provide the “dispatchable” power in provinces and territories that don’t have significant geothermal potential or the political capital for nuclear.

Climate Change May Impact Flows That Hydro Relies On

But hydropower has an added and somewhat ironic complication: climate change.

Markus Schnorbus, lead hydrologist at the University of Victoria-based Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, says in an interview with DeSmog Canada that projections indicate that as the climate continues to get warmer, interior B.C. watersheds including the Fraser, Peace and  Columbia will likely see earlier freshet (or snowmelt) and lower flows in the summer than have been historically observed.

Meanwhile, precipitation levels are expected to increase in other seasons, especially during winter and spring.

Both increase and decreased water levels can impact hydroelectric production in different ways, with too little water reducing potential generation and too much damaging facilities. Record low snowpack due to drought in California led to poor hydroelectric performance in 2015. The state spent over $1.4 billion purchasing power from natural gas-fired plants to make up the difference.

While Schnorbus emphasizes that he doesn’t study the potential impacts of climate change on hydropower, he notes the severity of impacts will vary greatly depending on “the actual trajectory of emissions that will or were to take place.”

Suffice it to say that the more intensely we emit, the sooner we’ll notice it,” he adds.

Experts Unanimous in Call for More Planning

Regardless of the percentage that hydro makes up of Canada’s energy mix in the future, it seems clear there needs to be more planning.

As noted previously, Bakker suggests there is little clarity from the federal government as to its actual plan for new capacity. Woynillowicz also notes we still haven’t seen a good analysis that would outline how to optimize the country’s electricity system looking at all different sources of supply.

Frankly, that’s been one of the big challenges we’ve had in Canada: our electricity systems have largely been isolated from one another because they’re under provincial jurisdiction,” Woynillowicz says.

We don’t have nearly as much exchange of electricity across provincial boundaries as would be optimal both from a cost perspective and from a carbon emissions perspective.”

Ideally, the country’s future grid will include more diversity of supply — with far more generation from wind, solar, geothermal and biomass — and more integration across provincial boundaries via new transmission lines. The federal Liberals have committed $22 billion over 11 years into “green infrastructure,” which could ostensibly include transmission lines. The new infrastructure bank — intended to “leverage” private investments into large capital projects — may also serve a role.

And while Woynillowicz supports future expansion of hydro, he notes that such projects often cost more and take longer to build. Comparatively, smaller scale renewables can be built as needed to meet demand.  

That’s a big part of why Bakker’s team ultimately concluded that Site C should either be cancelled or suspended: “Dealing with what is now outdated ideas is really necessary before we can have a healthy debate,” she says.

*Update Notice July 7th: A paragraph on growing concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from hydro reservoirs was added to provide further context.

Image: Emosson Reservoir in Switzerland. Photo: Martin Funk via the Swiss Federal Research Institute

Get Weekly News Updates