Canada’s history with hydro power

November 26, 2008  

Hydroelectric power. It’s as much a part of Canadian history as Hudson Bay blankets, Mounties, maple syrup and canoes. Today, hydro power accounts for 60% of electrical generation in Canada.

In addition to being a key thread in Canada’s socio-economic fabric, hydro is a key player in the climate change scenario. So says Roger Lanoue, president of the International Secretariat on Water and former vice-president of strategic planning at Hydro-Québec.

Lanoue questioned how anyone could say “anything contrary” about hydroelectric generation.

From the very first station installed at the Chaudiere Falls on the Ottawa River in the heart of the capital city in 1881, hydro power has been fundamental element of Canada’s economy since the 1880’s. According to Lanoue, hydro power played a key role in the success of the pulp and paper, smeling, mining, manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

“Hydro is so much part of the mix that it takes a conscious effort in some circles to even contemplate other options,” he said, adding that millions of Canadians even today remain unaware of its importance.

He pointed out that as a source of electricity, hydro is more stable than nuclear generation and that power exports represent a significant source of income for some provinces, mainly those without fossil fuel reserves. As a green energy technology, hydro has a 60:1 ratio of benefit to capital cost ratio versus 8-12:1 on other sources. “It’s at least six times more efficient than any other technology.”

On climate change, Lanoue said an average global temperature of 11 degrees Celsius would bring on another ice age which would cover much of both hemispheres. At the other extreme, a 21-degree average would bring on unstoppable global desertification. Either scenario would be untenable for all mammals, including humans.

To put that into perspective, Lanoue noted that in the 1800s, the average temperature had risen only three degrees since the last ice age, to 14 degrees. A measure of the global warming phenomenon is that it took only another 150 year for the average to reach the current 15 degrees and that some estimates indicate that it will reach 16 degrees by the middle of the next decade.

Indeed, moving forward, it seems hydroelectric power will continue to play a key role for Canadians over the next hundred years. This time it will be in our efforts to combat climate change.