Large hydropower provides most of the world's renewable energy and almost 90% of British Columbia's electricity. The building of hydroelectric dams is not, however, without environmental drawbacks.
By the Numbers
Total share of of world electricity production, greater than all other renewables combined
Canada's rank in global large hydropower generation
Large hydropower generating stations in Canada
Of B.C.'s electricity generated by large hydropower
Average price of electricity in Vancouver in 2009, one of the lowest in North America
Greater carbon emissions come from generating electricity from natural gas
Last Updated: May 2016
Large hydropower projects rely on dams to create artificial lakes that can provide tremendous amounts of reliable, renewable power. Today large hydropower is the only renewable that generates a significant portion of the world’s electricity, about 16%. While hydroelectric potential has been tapped in many parts of the developed world, for the developed world it offers the opportunity shift to derive relatively cheap power from a renewable source. The dams are expensive but once built the fuel is free and the levelized cost of electricity from them is very cheap. It’s no coincidence that British Columbians, who gets almost 90% of their electricity from large hydropower, have some of the lowest electricity rates in North America. Of course, it is only viable for countries that feature the required river systems. Where it exists today, hydroelectricity represents a renewable energy that, once developed, produces no direct waste and emits very small amounts of greenhouse gases.
Yet like any energy source, it has its ugly side. The consequences of damming are far-reaching; conversion of surrounding valleys to lakes displaces communities of both humans and animals, and slowed flow-rates can cause severe losses in biodiversity and increases in sedimentation permanently changing the river ecosystem.
Canada has a century long history with hydropower, and is currently tied with Brazil for second place in hydroelectric power production. China is first. 60% of all Canada’s electricity comes from hydropower. After utilities went on a building spree of dams from the 1950s to the 1980s, construction stalled. A combination of rising building costs and a wave of protests due to unaddressed environmental concerns seem to have been the main drivers barring expansion. Though Canada is said to have untapped potential double its existing capacity, the environmentally conscious route would be to upgrade old facilities to minimize wilderness disturbance.
Plans to refurbish aging dams are moving ahead across the country. The controversial Site C Dam is the first major new hydroelectric project in British Columbia in decades, and it began construction in early 2016. BC Hydro ratepayers are paying for Site C and the refurbishment plans in increased electricity rates.
How Large Hydropower Works
- Dams work by blocking large quantities of water and then releasing it through turbines that generate electricity.
- Pumped storage hydro is a way to store energy by pumping water back into a reservoir for later use.
There are three different types of river-based hydroelectric power: conventional storage, pumped hydro and run-of-river. Most of the world relies on conventional, pumped hydro is much rarer and run-of-river is the subject of a separate section of EnergyBC.
Conventional Storage Facilities
Hydroelectric power stations capitalize on the kinetic energy of falling water to produce electricity. Kinetic energy exists in any body of water that flows down a slope. The amount of energy that can be generated is directly related to the amount of height change that exists, or head differential. Though the planet has many naturally occurring hydro power hotspots—like rivers and waterfalls—most power plants manipulate the force of the water with dams. Man-made dams retain massive amounts of water in reservoirs, and form drastic drop-offs that enhance the kinetic energy of falling water. The reservoir water is used to store energy in the form of potential energy. When power is needed the gates of the dam are opened and the water funneled into a pipe known as the penstock and it gains pressure as it runs down the penstock’s gradient. The water strikes an electricity-generating turbine and forces the blades to turn.
The generator, attached to the turbine via a shaft, contains a series of magnets that spin and move past copper coils forcing the movement of electrons creating alternating current. Used water is funneled through pipes known as tailraces and directed back into the river downstream of the power station.
Hydropower is extremely efficient; most modern stations can convert over 95% of available energy into electricity. The majority of conventional fossil-fuel plants are less than 30% efficient, and even the most efficient, combined cycle gas cogeneration plants, only operate at about 60% efficiency.
Storage hydropower offers another huge advantage over many other energy producers as it can store energy in the form of water in the reservoir. When more energy is needed more water can be diverted into the turbines and more energy.
Pumped hydro is an extension of the concept of using the water in the reservoir as stored energy. Operating much like a dam, it also has the ability to pump water from downstream back into the reservoir for use in future when power demand is greater. During times of high energy production and low demand surplus electricity is used to push water upstream to the reservoir or to high alpine lakes to prepare for future periods of high demand.
This type of power is most popular in some Nordic countries and the United States. In Canada there is only one pumped-storage facility, Sir Adam Beck Pump Generating Station at Niagara Falls in Ontario.
Run-of-River plants dispense with the dam and instead divert water straight from the river’s normal flow and down a penstock and to a turbine. Because run-of-river systems don’t need dams they don’t have many of the negative imapcts associated with large hydropower. On the other hand they are unable to store water for future use and can be shut down entirely when the river’s water levels are low. Run-of-river projects tend to be much smaller than their conventional cousins, though many of them have been built in British Columbia in recent years.
Run-of-river power is considered separately in the scope of EnergyBC and we encourage you to learn more about it at this page.
Geography of Large Hydropower
- Dams are built along rivers and require the flooding of substantial bodies of land upriver.
Hydroelectric development depends upon a combination of elevation, climate and running water. It is most common for hydroelectric power stations to be located on mountain rivers at points where the elevation begins to drop significantly. Large amounts of rainfall or glacial melt are needed to create enough river flow for power.
Hydroelectric development calls for an alteration of the surrounding landscape. When dams are built to create reservoirs, water floods once dry land and a man-made lake is formed. This new body of water offers recreational opportunities like boating and fishing, however, it also modifies the natural ecosystem, a side-effect that has sparked much debate. Not only does the construction of a dam affect the encircling area, it also affects the river as a habitat for marine creatures.
- Salvador, 2005, pp. 109-111.
Economics of Large Hydropower
- Building hydroelectric dams can be very expensive, but they can provide enormous amounts of cheap power over the long term.
Since its origins in the late 19th Century, hydropower has not only powered homes and industries, but the national economy as well. Throughout Canada's history the development of hydropower facilities in remote areas drew people, commerce and other industries, reinforcing itself as a main factor in the creation of towns and cities.
BC Hydro, which gets the great majority of its power from hydropower, is one of Canada's top 100 employers, providing direct jobs for around 5, 200 employees. Indirect employment also stems from the hydroelectric industry. Statistics Canada provides employment statistics for the utilities industry (148,300 in 2010) but has no data specifically for the hydroelectric industry. Hydropower likely provides more jobs than any other renewable energy industry in Canada. Nevertheless on a megawatt-by-megawatt basis large hydropower provides far fewer jobs than other renewables. A study by the Canadian Geothermal Association estimated that while the Site C Dam will provide 150 permanent jobs, using geothermal to provide the same amount of power would create 2,500 permanent jobs and cost less.
Development costs range depending on the condition of the site, as well as the type of facility being constructed. The main investments center on the engineering, equipment and the turbine. The power house, dam, water intake, gates, as well as acquisition of land, planning, and authorization, all contribute to the initial investment. Typically, the costs relating to structural works (ie. the dam) are 40 to 50% of the overall expenses. Mechanical components such as the turbines are about 20-25% for larger plants and approximately 30% for smaller stations. A further 5-10% of the up-front cost is consumed by connecting the dam to the grid, though this can vary enormously on the need for major transmission lines. New costs for ecological compensation, like adding fish ladders, can lead to significant increases in costs. As with other renewable energy sources, the up-front costs dominate, while the operation stage provides the savings as the fuel is free. The annual operation costs are roughly 1-4% of the overall investment.
This means that once built dams which function for 50 or more years produce very cheap electricity. British Columbians, who get almost all their electricity from hydropower, enjoy some of the lowest electricity rates in North America. The three provinces (British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec) that rely most heavily on hydroelectricity have the lowest electricity rates. Provinces that rely highly on fossil fuels tend to have higher electricity rates and prices are much more volatile because of the changing market prices of the fuel needed to run the generators.
As of 2016 B.C. Hydro charges residential consumers based on a two tiered system. If daily averages remain less than 22.1918 kWh consumers pay $0.0829 per kWh. Anything above that falls into the next tier of $0.1243 per kWh. This is a 30% increase since 2012. The average 1000 kWh bill in Vancouver is $102.90.
The rate increases are both to refurbish many old dams and to build the Site C dam. Most dams in the province are 50 years old and about a dozen are in need of major upgrades, including the 80-year-old Ruskin Dam which will require an $800 million investment.
Environmental Issues with Large Hydropower
- The construction of hydroelectric dams often has major environmental impacts, especially related to the floodign of land and interruption of river ecosystems.
- Generating power from hydroelectric dams does not create carbon emissions.
Large hydropower projects have a number of environmental advantages over fossil fuel power. They are renewable, don’t emit carbon, and provide enormous quantities of power whenever it is needed for the grid. On the other hand dams can drastically alter river ecosystems while requiring enormous amounts of land for reservoirs.
The land requirements are often the main issue for opponents of hydropower like the Site C Dam. The requirements for the reservoir vary enormously from site to site, depending on the river topography and how much large a reservoir is thought necessary. As a very general rule a single reservoir providing water for a 1,300 MW hydroelectric power plant needs roughly 650 km2, or 50km2 per 100 MW installed. In other words, a man-made lake the size of about 4,629 soccer can generate enough power for 130,000 homes.
The conversion of land into artificial lakes has consequences for bird populations and other animals. Because of the low power density of hydroelectricity, it takes a lot of land to produce a relatively low amount of power. This directly affects animals including humans. In some countries, it floods former agricultural land, putting stress on the livelihoods of local communities. Recently, more than one million people were relocated in China in order to build the reservoir for the Three Gorges Dam which also included the relocation of two major cities. The flooding of this valley also resulted in a large loss in farming land that was once adjacent to the Yangtze River, putting many out of work. One study estimated anywhere between 40 and 80 million people had been displaced by dams over the past century.
The other main environmental impact of conventional hydropower is their impact on river ecosystems that stems from their diversion of water from its natural path. The impoundment area has a much decreased flow velocity which promotes increased sedimentation. Fish habitats become covered in the fine matter (sand, clay and silt) and are rendered useless for spawning.
Damming also slows the flow-rate of all river water, not just within the reservoir. Fish species, such as salmon, rely upon strongly flowing rivers to help send them down river. Migrating fish can get trapped and disoriented in slow-moving pools. Damming prompts problems for fish swimming upstream as well. Most notable are the adult salmon that attempt to swim upstream to reproduce, but cannot get past the dams. Some hydroelectric dams now have fish ladders or side channels to facilitate the salmon's journey yet many fish still die midstream, or get caught in turbine blades. Migrations of other animals and dispersion of plant seeds are hampered as well.
Additionally, man-made reservoirs, and the water released from them can also cause problems downstream. Often, lake bottom water is inhospitable to fish for two reasons: temperatures are much cooler than they are near the surface, and deep water is oxygen depleted compared with shallower water. When this cold, oxygen-poor water is released in massive quantities to create electricity, it can shock fish living downstream in warm, oxygen-rich pools. Surging waters also cause downstream flooding which can carry fish out of the river.
Sedimentation is a long-term problem associated with the damming of a river system. Because the flow rate of the river has been decreased to almost zero, sediment will settle in the reservoir behind the dam. This can lead to storage loss, operational impairment, environmental degradation and recreational impairment. Although there are remedies to sedimentation, most are expensive and tedious.
The effects of hydroelectric development are worst when power station chains—series of stations erected along an extended portion of a river—are created.43 Chains put an extreme amount of stress on river ecosystems. The connectivity of running waters is blocked, and river characteristics are degraded. Species loss leads to an overall loss in biodiversity as predators lose their prey and biodiversity wanes.
Water pollution at the time of construction can occur when construction materials interact with river system. These effects can pose grave consequences, but can be mitigated with appropriate procedures and precautions.
Because hydroelectric dams do not burn fossil fuels, they avoid the emissions associated with coal, or gas plants. Their operation releases no pollutants that cause acid rain and smog. Almost all carbon emissions come during construction and operation. If Canada was to switch its hydropower to coal it would require burning 120 million tons of coal each year. Canadian government studies show that hydropower produces dramatically less carbon over its lifetime than fossil fuel power generation, 60 times less than coal-fired power plants and 18-30 times less than natural gas power plants.
Outside of construction, emissions are most noticeable when plants decompose in the flooding caused by a dam, or impoundment zone, and produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is much more powerful than CO2. The amount of methane produced depends on the type of organic matter and location of the reservoir. Methane production is highest after the initial flood from the decomposing vegetation and soil organic matter and decreases with time. In temperate climates where the flood water is cold, methane production stabilizes quickly. In a tropical climate where the flood water is warm, methane production takes longer to stabilize resulting in more methane production and adding greatly to the dam’s carbon footprint. The methane production is not something that can be completely eliminated but if dam location is carefully considered it can be mitigated.
The decaying vegetation also contains bacteria that can change the naturally occurring mercury present in rocks, into a form that is soluble in water. Once released in this form, mercury begins to accumulate in the bodies of fish — a health hazard to any creature who consumes them. The Canadian Hydropower Association notes that an estimated 2/3 of mercury found in the environment has its origins in smelters, incinerators, and coal and oil-fired plants. The leftover 1/3 is believed to be naturally occurring, but also potentially the result of hydro developments. The CHA argues that the levels are so low that replacing coal and gas-fired plants with hydropower stations can, in the long run, decrease mercury levels in the environment.
The Risk of Dam Failure
The massive amounts of water held back by conventional hydro facilities contain potential energy, as well as potential risks. Failures arising from poor construction, or the age of the facilities, can unleash powerful floods that devastate villages, farmland, and wildlife habitats. The Banqiao Dam failure in China in 1975 killed 26,000 people in the ensuing flood. A further 145,000 people died from epidemics catalyzed by contaminated water. The typhoon that passed over the region was twice as large as the facility had been built to withstand.
Large dams may influence geologic stability and induce seismic activity, though this is only speculative at this point. The earthquake at the Koyna dam in India in 1967, which killed approximately 180 people, is believed by some to have been caused by the Koyna reservoir. Even with careful planning accidents can still occur. Unpredictable natural disasters such as earthquakes, extreme snowmelt, and landslides can cause structures to rupture. Numerous dams were affected by the 2011 earthquake in Japan, for instance.
Dams can also be targeted during wars or by terrorists. The most famous instance of a dam becoming a military target was the famous Dambusters Raid, in which the Royal Air Force bombed three key dams in Germany that provided electrical power, drinking water and water for the canal transport system.
Most recently the gigantic Mosul dam in northern Iraq may be the catastrophic victim of neglect resulting from war. The dam was captured by ISIS in 2014 who chased off the dam’s caretakers. Evidently the dam was so poorly built that the only thing that has kept it from crumbling was constant injections of concrete into the base. Now that those have halted the U.S. and Iraqi government are warning that the dam may soon collapse, flooding Mosul and potentially killing a million Iraqis. As the Guardian reported,
The statement conjured up images of a giant tsunami-like disaster that could kill 1 million people, ruin two-thirds of Iraq’s prime agricultural croplands, destroy electricity and clean water supplies, leave cities uninhabitable for months, and turn much of the country’s population into refugees.
- Jacobson, 2009.
- International Rivers, 2008.
- Kaltshmitt, 2007.
- Salvador, 2005,
- Environment Canada, 2010.
- Kaltshmitt, 2007.
- Bakis, 2007, pp.259-266.
- Government of Canada, "Canadian Government Fact Sheet: Invest in Canada."
- International Energy Agency, 2002.
- Canadian Hydropower Association, 2008.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, "Typhoon Nina- Banqiao dam failure."
- International Energy Agency, 2002.
- Tisdall, 2016.
Politics of Large Hydropower
- Large hydropower's proven track record have opened many utilities up to accusations they are biased in favour of it over other renewable alternatives.
The hydropower industry dovetails nicely with the government's aim to supply the economy with relatively cheap energy while meeting clean energy It comes without the some of the challenges of less developed technologies like solar, geothermal or wind, and it's been working in Canada for over a century.
Rather than investing to help bring alternatives like solar into the mainstream, the government has been boosting tried-and-true hydropower. This is best illustrated by the Site C Dam currently under construction in northwestern British Columbia. That project has been championed by the provincial government despite a report released by Canadian Geothermal Energy Association that showed electricity from geothermal power would be $76 per MWh, as opposed to Site C’s $87-95 per MWh. In response energy minister Bill Bennett said that geothermal “will be important in B.C. in the future. It is not a replacement – it’s not a way to get the 1,100 megawatts of electricity that we need today.” Tellingly, the Joint Review Panel examining the viability of Site C directly contradicted the minister’s claim that the power was needed today.
Large Hydropower Around the World
- Large hydropower generates the majority of the world's renewable energy.
Hydropower contributed 2.3% of total global primary energy production in 2014, putting it ahead of all the other renewables save biofuels. In terms of electricity production hydropower plays a bigger role but despite constant development, hydropower’s contribution to world electricity production has actually decreased in recent decades. The 1920s saw the height of hydropower’s share of world electricity production at 40%. Since then, it has decreased to 30% in the mid 1950's, 20% in the mid 80s, down to 16% in 2014. There are 950 GW of hydroelectric power installed around the world.
China now sits as the world’s hydroelectric leader, generating 920 TWh in 2014. Much of this power comes from the titanic Three Gorges Dam, the largest power station in the world and only opened in 2012. The dam has a capacity of 22,500 MW. Canada is basically tied with Brazil at a distant second, both generating about 390 TWh of electricity from hydropower in 2014. Norway is the leader in terms of hydropower penetration, and derives fully 96% of its electricity from falling waters.
The World Energy Council estimates only a third of the world’s hydroelectric potential has been developed, most of it in the developed world. This means that most developing countries have huge untapped hydropower potential, and over the last decade many are taking advantage of it. In 2012 alone 30 GW of new capacity came online, mostly in South America, Asia and Africa. Approximately 1.2 billion people still don’t have access to electricity, and for their governments’ hydroelectric dams offer one of the best ways to efficiently produce enormous quantities of power at a good price.
Large Hydropower in Canada
- Canada is one of the world's leaders in hydropower and the provinces of Quebec, B.C., Manitoba and Ontario rely heavily upon it.
Canada is the world's second largest producer of hydroelectricity and gets fully 63% of its power from hydroelectricity. That’s more than 76,000 MW distributed across almost 500 facilities nationwide. A single power plant, like the Robert-Bourassa station in northern Quebec, can meet the needs of 1.4 million people. There is room to expand it much further: the Canadian Hydropower Association believes Canada has the potential for a further 160,000 MW of capacity. This is all the result of Canada’s unparalleled geography for hydropower, with many provinces boasting abundant supplies of rushing water, mountainous regions, and steady rainfall.
Unlike all other renewable energies, hydropower has already been powering Canada for over a century. The first hydroelectric plant was at Chaudieres Falls in 1881. The water wheel, built by the Ottawa Electric Light Company, powered street lights and local mills. Large scale development began in earnest in the early 1900s, with sites constructed across Ontario and Quebec. After the Second World War many of the small hydroelectric dams from before were eschewed for mega-projects like the Robert-Bourassa station or the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, securing power for millions of Canadians.
The pace of development slowed in the 1990s and few new large hydroelectric projects have been built in the last few decades. Environmental and social concerns have hampered the approval of conventional storage facility plans. As conventional hydropower has lost popularity, run-of-river systems, which avoid many of the unfavourable aspects of large hydro, have moved into the spotlight instead.
Canada's long history with hydropower has fostered experience and skill in both facility design and construction. Some of the world's largest and most efficient hydropower facilities involved Canadian architects, engineers and builders. Canadian development of hydropower facilities has occurred in Colombia, Ghana, Malaysia, India and the Philippines, among others.
Canada also exports a tremendous amount of electricity to the United States via the two countries closely integrated electrical grids. In 2009, Canada's energy exports to the U.S were valued at $76.27 billion, with nearly 2/3 of it coming from hydropower. In 2010, British Columbia alone exported 5.5 million MWh of electricity to exports the U.S. Proposals for submarine power cables carrying electricity from Canada to the U.S. were announced in early 2011. The plans, advanced by several different companies, would establish submarine power cables between British Columbia and California, Montreal and New York City, and potentially from Newfoundland and Manitoba to northeastern and Midwestern American markets. Vancouver Island is served by three sets of submarine cables, and the technology is used in transmitting power from offshore wind farms as well. The environmental concerns of laying power cables along the ocean floor include the freighting of massive amounts of material (usually from Japan), and the disturbance of marine life during construction.
Quebec accounts for the biggest share of hydroelectric production in Canada. The eastern province draws 94% of its power from hydroelectric facilities. With a capacity of 34,490 MW in 2010, hydropower supports over four million customers there. British Columbia is the country's second largest producer, with an installed generating capacity of over 11,000 MW.
Alberta is notable as a province that has underutilized its hydroelectric resources. The Canadian Hydropower Association estimates that province has 11,800 MW of hydropower potential, yet only 900 MW installed capacity.
Large Hydropower in British Columbia
- British Columbia gets the vast majority of its power from large hyropower projects spread across the province that were mostly built from the 1950s to the 1970s.
The geography and climate of British Columbia have ensured the province would develop into a hydroelectric powerhouse. B.C. Hydro, a provincially owned crown corporation, was established to develop large-scale hydro power facilities and to distribute electricity province-wide. BC Hydro operates 30 power plants, and produces more than 43,000 GWh of electricity annually, providing energy for over 1.7 million residential, commercial and industrial customers. Even down to today, almost all of their operational facilities are hydroelectric dams, though they buy electricity from independent power producers.
Large Hydropower Projects in British Columbia (2016)
Most of the province’s power comes from a series of dams on the Peace and Columbia river systems in the Rocky Mountains. The Columbia system boasts two giant dams, the 2,480 MW Revelstoke Dam built in 1984 and the 1,805 MW Mica Dam completed in 1973. The Peace’s major dam is the 2,730 W.A.C. Bennett Dam that dates back to 1968, and the proposed 1,100 MW Site C Dam will be built there too. In addition to some smaller dams in those regions there is a scattering of conventional hydropower projects around the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island.
After the building boom of the 60s and 70s no new major hydroelectric dams have come online in the province. To continue to meet power demand B.C. Hydro and FortisBC (the second major utility in the province) have opted to spend billions upgrading and refitting the aging dams so as to wring another half century of power out of them. These projects include a $1.1 billion expansion of the John Hart dam outside Campbell River, to be completed in 2018. $900 million to expand the Waneta Dam south of Trail (completed 2015). Adding two new units to the Mica Dam and improve its capacity by 1,000 MW (completed 2015). Another $750 million has been spent on upgrading the 1930s era Ruskin Dam near Mission (complete in 2017). A sixth turbine will be added to the Revelstoke Dam for $420 million, schedule to be completed by 2020. Finally the hugely controversial $8.3 billion (as of writing) Site C Dam began construction in early 2016.
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