State of the Planet

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Can Canadian Water Slake America’s Need for Power?

Robert-Bourassa Reservoir, Quebec, Canada. NASA image

As an American, I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve only visited Canada twice in my life. The first time I went to Toronto, and a few weeks ago, I had a chance to experience the splendor of summertime Montreal. As we drove north on highway 15, I was struck by the similarity the countryside on either side of the road bore bordering U.S. States. Just like in upstate New York, nondescript deciduous forests and rolling agricultural land stretched out in both directions. People drove the same Fords, Chevys and Toyotas we do in the States. But past Canada’s relatively thin southern strip–the part most Canadians call home–the similarities end. In wild north, closer to the Arctic Circle, temperatures are colder and the length of a day varies widely from one season to the next (compare that to America’s vast expanses of wilderness, which are largely desert). Thousands of miles of rivers, creeks and wetlands criss-cross the Boreal Forest, home to all sorts of wildlife. At a time when the world is abuzz with talk of reducing carbon dioxide emissions to stem the tide of climate change, Canada’s surfeit of hydropower production appears an attractive option to people south of the border who still rely on fossil fuel-generated electricity.

Completed in 1976, Toronto's CN Tower is an 1,815 foot-tall symbol of Canada's 20th century economic growth. 2008. Photo by Benjamin Preston

As many Americans are beginning to learn–even those who, like myself, haven’t taken advantage of our Northern neighbor’s nearby treasure trove of natural wonders–Canada is a cornucopia of industrially beneficial resources. From an economic perspective it always has been. Early in its European history, Canada fueled Europe’s thriving fashion industry with animal furs. Prior to the collapse of the northwest Atlantic cod fishery late in the 20th century, many North Americans ate codfish on a regular basis (I haven’t seen it on grocery store shelves near the canned herring and sardines lately). But Canada also has a wealth of minerals, petroleum, and water that set it apart from most other nations. Because of that, many other countries are looking at (or are already using) Canada as a supplier of resources needed for economic growth. As climate changes and water used for irrigation, drinking water and hydroelectric power becomes more scarce in the dry Western United States, Canada is a reasonable place to go to augment our dwindling resources.

According to the Paris-based International Energy Agency, hydroelectric power has declined over the past 40 years as a percentage of the world’s electricity generation from 21 percent to about 16 percent since 1973. But that’s not because of any shortage of hydroelectric dams. China is currently in the midst of a dam-building binge of epic proportions to power its upward climb on the industrial ladder. Canada is no exception, and behind China, is the world’s second largest producer of hydropower, cranking out 383 terawatt hours per year. Along with other generation sources, Canada produces enough electricity to export 32 terawatt hours per year, roughly the same amount the US–the world’s largest producer of electricity (regardless of generation method)–has to import.

Pylônes près de Chapais, au Québec. Massive transmission lines carry hydroelectricity from Canada's desolate north to markets along the border with America. 2009. Photo by Khayman

Like in the U.S., many hydro dams sprouted in Mountie country during the 20th century, particularly within the past 40 years. Both North American countries saw a big decline in dam construction starting in the 1980s, as it became clear what impeding rivers on such a grand scale does to ecosystems. But Canada, which has been selling hydropower to American markets for years, is poised to build more dams in anticipation of the U.S. weaning itself further off of coal and natural gas-powered electricity. Many customers in New England, New York and California already rely upon Canadian hydropower, but two new large hydropower projects are slated for construction in Labrador, in Atlantic Canada’s far northern reaches.

Hydroelectric energy has a host of benefits. Operational and maintenance costs are low. Revenue from the sale of electricity typically covers the cost of construction. After dams and infrastructure are built, hydropower doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. A Nalcor Energy spokesperson recently told ClimateWire that the two new Labrador generating facilities it wants to build will, per annum, produce 16.7 terawatt-hours of electricity while offsetting 16 megatons of greenhouse gases.

But for all their benefits, hydroelectric dams come with a depressing array of consequences, affecting everything from ocean fish stocks to the earth’s rotation (we don’t even know what that will do, but it sounds sinister). In largely pristine Northern Canada, where most of the country’s hydroelectric dams are located, many rivers have been blocked by reservoirs, drowning wildlife habitat and First Nation lands. Whether or not you care about the fabulous beauty of untouched wilderness, there is something insidious about altering the production cycle of a natural system which has provided humanity with natural resources throughout history.

Labrador, Canada. Image courtesy WikiCommons

On the one hand, finding ways to use nature to improve our lives is what we do as a species. But on the other, there is a tradeoff as to how much we can alter nature before major consequences are felt. From the perspective of a business operating in a developed area replete with roads, cars, buses, buildings and shops, building more and more dams to supply water and electricity to a growing population is an obvious answer to our energy-climate dilemma. It’s cheap and it doesn’t pollute the atmosphere. But what will be the long term impacts? Canada’s northern forests regulate global climate, too, and the wide range of animal species living there have balanced one another for eons. As we’ve seen from industrial agricultural production, nature often does a better job of keeping itself healthy through balances we often don’t understand than all of the medicines and control programs science can produce.

As Lester Brown pointed out in his book Eco Economy, the economy is a subset of natural resources, not vice versa. Without natural resources, there is no economy. So while new hydroelectric power is exciting in terms of reducing greenhouse gases and dependence upon fossil fuels, its impact on other resources is worrisome. Hopefully, the stars will align and people will discover a good balance between scale and diversity. Until then, it’s business as usual wearing different disguises.

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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