Will Canada's Hydropower Boom Help Cool the Climate?
Posted: 9/19/11 02:10 PM ET
by Will Braun
Former Editor, Geez Magazine
Leaders in the Canadian hydropower industry believe North America
can dam its way to a cooler climate. The industry plans to spend $55
to $70 billion on hydro-electric dams across the country in the next
10 to 15 years, claiming that the resulting energy -- much of which
will be exported to the coal-dependent U.S. -- will displace dirtier
forms of energy and thus reduce continental greenhouse gas emissions.
But some experts say that continual increases in energy supply --
whatever the source -- are not the optimal response to the climate
crunch. They say the answer is not more energy but much more efficient
use of existing energy.
According to data compiled from a variety of utility and government
sources, the proposed new dams will boost Canadian hydro capacity from
74,000 megawatts -- which ranks us third in the world -- to about
88,500 megawatts. Of the added capacity, the most is in Quebec (4,570
MW), followed by B.C. (3,341 MW), Labrador (3,074 MW) and Manitoba
Major projects in the works across the country include the Site C dam
in B.C. ($7.9 billion), three Manitoba dams ($14.9 billion combined),
three Quebec dams ($11.5 billion combined), and the Muskrat Falls dam
in Labrador ($6.2 billion).
Much of the new power will be exported to the U.S., especially in the
earlier years of these dams before domestic demand catches up.
The resurgence in hydropower is linked to the Canadian hydro
industry's effort to market its product as an answer to global
warming. Hydropower is "a very strong climate change solution," said
Jacob Irving, head of the Canadian Hydropower Association (CHA), which
represents industry interests. The argument, as stated in a recent CHA
document, is that "each terawatt hour of hydro exported to the United
States largely replaces fossil fuel generation." It says such exports
already reduce continental greenhouse gas emissions by "at least half
a million tons" annually.
An additional advantage of hydropower is that it enables utilities to
add a greater proportion of intermittent renewable energy sources,
like wind and solar power, to their generation mix. Unlike most energy
sources, hydro can be turned on and off almost instantaneously, and
that makes it ideal for "filling] in the gaps from intermittent
sources," Irving said.
The argument for increased hydro exports is compelling, especially
given that each year 600 coal-fired generating plants in the U.S. burn
nearly a billion tons of coal, the worst form of energy from a climate
perspective. Those 600 plants account for almost half of U.S.
electricity generation (only 19 per cent of Canadian electricity is
from coal). Another 24 per cent of U.S. supply comes from natural gas-
fired plants, which are roughly half as bad in terms of emissions.
But John Bennett, who heads the Sierra Club of Canada, said "we waste
half the hydro we produce" because we lag behind in energy
conservation and efficiency. He believes the "major investment" should
be in these areas. The solution to climate change, he said, is "to use
less energy," not to build more mega-projects that increase supply.
Ralph Torrie agreed that cutting energy consumption in half is both
necessary and possible. "If you want to see how it's done just take a
vacation to Europe," he said. Torrie is an internationally recognized
energy expert and the Managing Director of the Vancouver-based
Trottier Energy Futures Project. He advocates reducing energy demand
through the use of more efficient means -- often existing technology
-- to meet virtually all the needs electricity serves.
Unlike Irving, who accepts the standard predictions that electricity
consumption in Canada and the U.S. will grow by about one per cent
annually in the coming decade, Torrie advocates a "new way of thinking
about the energy future."
This new way treats 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," Torrie said. Plus,
the resource gets bigger with every new innovation in efficiency.
Most Canadian utilities tout their efficiency and conservation
measures. Irving said "energy conservation has to be forefront of all
decisions." But how do conservation efforts compare to the resources
allocated to building new dams? Montreal-based energy consultant
Philippe Dunsky said total spending on efficiency and conservation
programs in Canada is only about $1 billion annually.
If dams are included in a North American response to climate change --
which seems inevitable -- Bennett said they must be in the context of
a clear, broader plan to reduce emissions. Dams do not reduce
emissions per se -- they increase supply -- so they have to be "part
of a bigger scheme." 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.
Canadian utilities argue that hydro exports displace coal generation.
Hydro Quebec, for instance, reports that its exports "avoided
emissions of 9.05 [megatons of carbon dioxide]." But critics can say
that every additional kilowatt of cheap power simply postpones the
ultimate necessity of addressing inefficient use of electricity and
run-away energy appetites. Both arguments have merit. If policy makers
rest only on the coal displacement argument they do so at considerable
Without a concerted effort to tame demand, increased hydro generation
will simply be matched with increased coal consumption and increased
global temperatures. That begs the question: can hydropower be part of
the climate change solution if no such solution is in the works?
At some policy makers must make conservation the dominant priority.
Ideally, this will happen before all the rivers are dammed and all the
coal is vapourized.
Will Braun works for the Winnipeg-based Interfaith Task Force on
Northern Hydro Development. A feature-length version of this article
appears in THIS Magazine.
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