Can we dam our way to a cooler climate?

Will Braun
Winnipeg Free Press
Date published: 
Sun, 2011-09-11

Manitoba is not the only province betting billions of dollars on hydro dams and energy exports. From B.C. to Labrador, Canadian energy companies plan to spend between $55 billion and $70 billion on hydro projects in the next 10 to 15 years.

A key driver behind this boom is the ever-growing American appetite for energy and the increasing desire in the U.S. to replace coal-fired power generation with climate-friendly sources. But some experts say that continual increases in energy supply -- whatever the source -- are not the optimal response to the climate crunch.

The proposed new dams will boost Canadian hydro capacity from 74,000 megawatts -- which ranks us second in the world, behind China -- 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 (2,380 MW).

Manitoba's share includes the Wuskwatim dam, currently under construction, and the Keeyask and Conawapa dams, both in the planning stage. Combined with the planned Bipole III transmission line, these projects are worth a projected $18.2 billion.

Other major projects in the works across the country are the Site C dam in B.C. ($7.9 billion), the Muskrat Falls dam in Labrador ($6.2 billion), and the Romaine and Eastmain-1-A-Sarcelle-Rupert projects in Quebec ($11.5 billion combined).

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 hydro power is linked to an effort on the part of the hydro industry in Manitoba, Canada and beyond to market its product as an answer to global warming.

Hydro power 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 hydro power is that it enables utilities to add a greater proportion of intermittent renewable energy sources, such as 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 one billion tons of coal, the worst form of energy from a climate perspective. Those 600 plants account for 45 per cent of U.S. 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 said the solution to climate change is "to use less energy," not to build more mega-projects that increase supply. 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.

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.

Irving agreed that "energy conservation has to be forefront of all decisions." But Montreal energy consultant Phillipe Dunsky said total spending on efficiency and conservation programs in Canada is only about $1 billion per year.

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 in both countries emissions remain above 1990 levels, the Kyoto benchmark.

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.

While utilities argue that hydro exports displace coal generation, critics can say that every additional kilowatt of cheap power simply postpones the ultimate necessity of addressing inefficient use of electricity and runaway energy appetites. Both arguments have merit. If policy makers rest only on the coal displacement argument they do so at considerable peril.

We know more dams will be built and more hydropower will be exported. We also know that without a concerted effort to tame demand, increased hydro generation will 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 point conservation must become 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.


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