Large Hydro

By Charlotte Helston

I. Overview

Large Hydro by the Numbers

Many countries are now utilizing hydropower, including both developed and developing nations. For the developed world, it offers the opportunity to shift to renewable resources. For developing nations, and for those areas still without electricity, it presents the chance to skip over the non-renewable phase, and opt instead for a first electricity source that has the potential to be clean and inexpensive. Of course, it is only viable for countries that feature the required climate and geography to house hydro power. Where it exists today, hydroelectricity represents a renewable energy that, once developed, produces no direct waste and emits very small amounts of greenhouse gases. But, like any energy source, it has its ugly side. Lesser known, or lesser noticed alongside hydropower's many advantages, are the environmental and social impacts also associated with it. 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 that area.

The Arrow Lakes Dam, part of a series of dams just outside Castlegar, British Columbia.
The Arrow Lakes Dam, part of a series of dams just outside Castlegar, British Columbia.

Canada has a century long history with hydropower, and is currently the world's third largest producer. After the industry's initial thrust in the mid to late 20th Century, development stalled in Canada, and North America in general. A combination of expense and a wave of hesitancy due to unaddressed environmental concerns seem to be 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.

Refurbishment plans are popping up across the country, with or without government assistance. In some cases, as with BC Hydro, consumers are paying for the upgrades in increased electricity rates. Currently, 60% of electricity produced in Canada is drawn from hydro. Only a portion of that hydroelectricity is used in Canada; the rest is exported for profit.

II. How Does Hydroelectricity Work?

There are three different types of river-based hydroelectric facilities; storage, run-of-river and pumped hydro.

Conventional Storage Facilities

Schematic of a Turbine.

Hydroelectric power stations capitalize on the kinetic energy of falling water to produce electricity. Kinetic energy exists in any body of water that flows, by force of gravity, on a downhill slope. The amount of energy that can be generated is related directly to the amount of height change that exists. 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 contained water is used to store energy in the form of potential energy. The energy conversion process begins at the intake structure where the gates of the dam are opened, and the water unleashed into a pipeline known as the penstock, which leads to the turbine. As the water rushes down the gradient of the penstock, it gains pressure. The water strikes the turbine and forces the blades to turn. This motion in turn powers a generator.

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 evacuated through pipelines known as tailraces and directed back into the river, downstream of the power station.

diagram of a hydroelectric power station
Depiction of a conventional storage facility.

Storage hydropower offers a big advantage over many other energy producers, as it can respond to increases in demand almost immediately by releasing extra water which spins the turbines faster and generates more electricity. Power stations can also quickly bring on additional turbines to meet demand.


Run-of-river facilities employ the natural flow and elevation drop of rivers. An intake structure forces water through a submerged pipeline, or penstock, which leads to a turbine. The turbine drives a generator, which then produces alternating current. Water is directed back to its initial path further down river. In run-of-river systems, the construction of dams — and their associated impacts — are avoided. This system is not without faults as seasonality in precipitation and river flow affect power output. If there is not enough water flowing through the stream to enter the penstock then no power can be produced. The lack of a reservoir causes this type of system to be unreliable for large scale power output. Long-term small scale power output can also be unreliable due to instabilities in climates. A separate article closely analyzing run-of-river power can be found here.

Pumped Hydro

Pumped hydro is a combination technology incorporating aspects of both run-of-river and conventional storage facilities. It too uses the flow of water to drive turbines, which in turn powers generators. The power station uses normal river flow, but also has a reservoir located upstream of the facility where water can be pumped and stored. During times of high production, surplus electricity is used to push water upstream to the reservoir or to high alpine lakes to prepare for future periods of high demand.

In Canada there is only one pumped-storage facility, Sir Adam Beck Pump Generating Station at Niagara Falls in Ontario. Built in 1957, the station has an output of 174 MW.

Diagram of a Pumped Hydro Station
Diagram of a Pumped hydroelectric Facility.

How does hydropower compare to other energy producers?

The principle in hydroelectric systems is similar to that of many other energy sources. Many technologies, including coal-fired power plants as well as solar thermal and geothermal plants use steam to drive turbines. Hydroelectric plants use water instead. Once the turbine is spinning and the generator activated, electricity is created.

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 combined cycle cogeneration plants only operate at about 60% efficiency.

III. Geography of Large Hydro

Hydroelectric developments depend 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. High precipitation levels are needed to enhance river flow. In North America, hydroelectric plants are typically located on or around major rivers.

Hydroelectric development calls for an alteration of the surrounding landscape. When dams are built to create reservoirs, water floods out over 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. Read more about the repercussions on wildlife as a result of damming in the Environment section.

The Gordon Dam in Tasmania, Australia.
The Gordon Dam in Tasmania, Australia.

Hydroelectric power station projects are best undertaken in collaboration with local communities and conservation groups to minimize negative environmental impacts.

IV. Large Hydro Around the World

Hydropower contributed 15% of total global energy production in 2008, making it the leading source of renewable energy today. All other renewables combined amount to less than 3% of global energy production. Despite constant development, hydroelectric's contribution to world electricity production has actually decreased. The 1920s saw the height of hydroelectric's share of world energy production — at 40%. Since then, it has decreased to 30% in the mid 1950's, 20-21% in the mid 80s, and 18% in the 90s.

China doubled its capacity between 2004-2009, and now sits as the world's top country for hydroelectric production, with 549 billion kWh generated in 2009. Despite leading the world in hydroelectric power generation (as well as being the world's top investor in renewable energy projects), China still relies on coal for over half of its energy. Brazil, the world's second largest producer, generated 387 billion kWh of hydroelectric power in 2009, followed closely by Canada with 363.4 billion kWh.

With the right planning, considerations, and collaborations, hydropower development can make significant contributions in improving living standards in the developing world. Approximately 1.5 billion people still lack access to electricity. For rural areas without electricity, small hydro is often used to replace polluting diesel generators. Displacement resulting from the flooded reservoir (the impoundment area) is a serious concern that must be handled in cooperation with local communities. Where all stakeholders are included in planning and implementation, hydropower can offer a valuable option for energy production in the developing world.

V. Large Hydro in Canada

The 2,592 MW Daniel-Johnson Dam in Central Quebec. This dam was completed in 1968 and is essential to Quebec's electricity supply.
The 2,592 MW Daniel-Johnson Dam in Central Quebec. This dam was completed in 1968 and is essential to Quebec's electricity supply.

Canada is the world's third largest producer of hydroelectricity, generating 348.1 billion kWh in 2010. More than 70,000 MW of hydropower have been developed from a total of approximately 475 generating facilities across the country. In 2010, hydropower generated 321,061,668 MWh, considerably more than conventional steam generation at 95,415,784 MWh. Total utility generation emerged at 527,689,407 MWh, demonstrating hydro's 60% dominance share of Canada's electricity production. A single power plant, like the Robert-Bourassa station in northern Quebec, can meet the needs of 1.4 million people. As with coal and gas, Canada has come to hydropower as a result of convenience; it has abundant supplies of rushing water, mountainous regions, and steady rainfall. Canada's surface water resources are substantial — about 7% of the world's renewable water supply.

Unlike all other renewable energies, hydropower has served Canada on a major scale for over a century. The first generation of electricity from hydropower in Canada 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 in at Niagara and Shawnigan. Large stations erected in the 1960s and 70s marked a settling time for expansion, with very few new hydro sites developed into the mid 90s, and almost no new sites as of 2005. Some reports state Canada has already maximized on its hydropower potential, leaving no promising sites for new development. Others, including an Environment Canada study, report undeveloped potential of more than double the current capacity. Environmental and social concerns have hampered the approval of conventional storage facility plans. In conventional hydro's demise, run-of-river systems, which avoid many of the unfavourable aspects of large hydro, have gained much attention.

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 is also the United States' biggest supplier of electricity, alongside oil, natural gas and uranium. In 2009, Canada's energy exports to the U.S were valued at $76.27 billion, with nearly 2/3 of energy accounted for with hydropower. In 2010, BC contributed 5,670,655 MWh of electricity to exports for the U.S., the bulk of which was generated by hydropower. 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 majority 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.

VI. Large Hydro in B.C.

The geography and climate of British Columbia predisposes it to the use of hydropower. BC 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. Major facilities are located on the Columbia and Peace river systems, where electricity rates are among the lowest in the world. In 2010, BC contributed 5,670,655 MWh of electricity to exports for the U.S., the bulk of which was generated through hydropower.

The 1,740 MW Mica Dam near Revelstoke, B.C.
The 1,740 MW Mica Dam near Revelstoke, B.C.

No significant projects have been undertaken since the 1990s, though Canada's position as a net importer of electricity has raised interest in developing new sites, and expanding old ones to become more self-sufficient. Expanding existing facilities seems the least contentious proposition as it avoids disturbance of undeveloped river systems, and constitutes less of an investment. See the Economics section for more information on BC Hydro's development plans.

VII. Politics of Large Hydro

How has the Canadian government supported the hydroelectric industry?

The hydropower industry dovetails nicely with the government's aim to boost the economy with cheap energy supplies, and meet clean energy goals. As Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis said in a 2010 speech, "[The] industry employs tens of thousands of people... and makes a significant contribution to Canada's economic growth and prosperity." Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said the industry "not only stimulates economic activity and boosts employment where it is needed today, [but] also provides communities with the infrastructure needed to prosper in the future." The already well-established industry has offered the Canadian government an ideal energy source to support. It comes without the some of the challenges of other renewables 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 can invest in the tried-and-true industry of hydropower. Paradis said, "[The Canadian government's] ecoENERGY for Renewable Power program is supporting hydro projects such as the Brilliant Dam expansion project in Castlegar, B.C., and the Centrale hydroélectrique Rivière Magpie project in Rivière Saint-Jean, Quebec." Contributions such as the ~$47 million allotted to the Brilliant Dam over a proposed 10 years, beginning in 2008, will help keep renewable energy at cost competitive prices. The dam's upgraded facility will generate 120 MW of clean electricity, offsetting about 450,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. Many of Canada's hydroelectric dams are over 50 years old and in need of upgrades to improve safety and expand capacity. Government support will be critical in financing these projects.

In late March of 2011, during the lead-up to the recent federal election, Stephen Harper announced that a re-elected Conservative government would provide financial support for the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project in Labrador — a $6.2 billion investment. An earlier speech suggested Harper was uncommitted to funding the project; "There is a lot of discussion still to come," he told reporters in Halifax.

What has the Canadian government done to address the environmental concerns related to hydroelectric power stations?

Hydroelectric facilities are the culprits in devastating habitat destruction, both during construction and operation. Measures can be taken to reduce the negative impacts. Building code requirements such as fish ladders can help mitigate some of the effects by providing safe routes around turbines that migrating or spawning fish can get trapped in. Some ladder requirements have been put in place, however, they are often ineffectual due to poor placement or too few installations. Additionally, ladders provide no safeguard against other issues such as sedimentation, de-oxygenated water, impoundment, and reduced water flow. An examination of the environmental impacts of hydropower facilities can be found in the Environment section.

Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis noted in a 2010 speech that the "government is committed to implementing simpler, clearer regulatory processes that will improve environmental protection..." Details on the nature of these new regulations have yet to be released. In addition to funding facility refurbishment, it would be progressive for the Canadian government to phase in environmental protection regulations as soon as possible to prevent damage before it is too late to undo it.

VIII. Economics of Large Hydro

Since its origins in the late 1800s, hydropower has not only powered homes and industries, but the economy as well. In many cases 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.

This graph clearly shows the dominance large hydro has of the renewable energies market, accounting for over half of all the renewable energy produced in the world.
This graph clearly shows the dominance large hydro has of the renewable energies market, accounting for over half of all the renewable energy produced in the world.

How many jobs does the hydroelectric industry create, and are they stable?

Christian Paradis, Minister of Natural Resources, said in a 2010 speech; "[The hydropower] industry employs tens of thousands of people, such as engineers, geologists, construction workers, electricians and mechanics, and makes a significant contribution to Canada's economic growth and prosperity."

BC Hydro is one of Canada's top 100 employers, providing direct jobs for around 5, 200 employees. Indirect employment 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. Hydroelectrics certainly provide more jobs than any other renewable energy industry in Canada, and likely more than all of them put together.

How much does it cost to develop a site for hydroelectric production?

British Columbians pay some of the lowest electricity rates in North America. The average four member household pays about $77 per month.

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 electrical generator constitutes less than 5% of the total cost of a power plant. 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. An approximate 5-10% is consumed by the electrical installations. 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. The main reason for this is the elimination of purchasing expensive fuel. The annual operation costs are roughly 1-4% of the overall investment.

How much does hydroelectricity cost for consumers?

British Columbians enjoy some of the lowest electricity rates in North America. The average four-member household pays about $77 per month. The three provinces (British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec) that produce the most amount of 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.

Comparison of B.C.'s ELectricity Rates to other provinces
Comparison of electricity costs in Canada's capital cities.

BC Hydro, British Columbia's predominant electric utility, charges consumers based on a two tiered system. If daily averages remain less than 22.1918 kWh consumers pay $0.06270 per kWh. Anything above that falls into the next category, which charges $0.08780 per kWh.

BC Hydro has announced cost increases that would bring average monthly bills to $92, from the previous $77. Most of BC's dams are over 50 years old and in need of major upgrades. BC Hydro's plan to raise electricity rates by 10% in each of the next three years, adding $180 onto homeowner bills, and earning the company enough money to upgrade about a dozen dams and generating stations, including the 80-year-old Ruskin Dam which will require an $800 million investment. Even with the rate increases, costs are still among the most lowest in North America.

BC Hydro Rates
BC Hydro rates per/kWh over the past five years.

IX. Environmental Impact of Large Hydro

What are the land requirements for hydropower?

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 space of about 4,629 soccer fields gives way to enough power for 60,000 homes.

How do hydroelectric facilities affect the environment?

Because hydroelectric dams do not burn fossil fuels, they avoid a considerable amount of emissions compared to other energies. Their operation releases no pollutants that cause acid rain and smog. Studies estimate that hydropower prevents the burning of 22 billion gallons of oil, or 120 million tons of coal each year. The direct CO2 emissions for Canadian companies are relatively small; 395 CO2e(kt) from BC Hydro in 2009. The Canadian government states the hydropower industry produces the fewest greenhouse gases of any major electricity source; 60 times less than coal-fired power plants and 18-30 times less than natural gas power plants.

For many years hydropower was considered emissions-free, and it wasn't until recently that the energy was included in global emissions reports. 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. The methane production is not something that can be completely eliminated but if dam location is carefully considered it can be mitigated.

Three Gorges Dam in China, the largest dam in the world.
The Three Gorges Dam, the largest dam in the world, generating 22,500 MW of power, completed along China's Yangtze River in 2006. The flooding caused by the dam displaced over a million people, destroyed a number of archaeological and cultural sites, and has caused extensive damage to the river's ecosystem.

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, potentially the result of hydro developments. The CHA argues that replacing coal and gas-fired plants with hydropower stations can, in the long run, decrease mercury levels in the environment. This still does nothing to address the ultimate conversion of mercury into a water soluble form, as a result of decaying material in the flood zones created by damming.

Another environmental impact arises from the diversion of water from its natural path. Damming causes changes in the replenishment of fresh water, thereby affecting overall ecosystem health. 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.

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.

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, however, many fish still die midstream, or get caught in turbine blades. Migrations of other fauna, and even some flora migrations and dispersals 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. 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.

Flooding caused by the Merowe Dam along the Nile in Sudan.
A startling visual depiction of the flooding a dam can cause. This dam, the Merowe Dam along the Nile, is located in the north of Sudan.

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.

Dam Failures and Risks of Large Hydro

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 March, 2011 earthquake in Japan, for instance.

Dams can also be targeted during wars or as by terrorists. The most famous instance of a dam becoming a military target was being Operation Chastise during the Second World War, 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.

The Mohne Dam the day after it was burst by the famous Dambusters bombing raid of RAF Squadron No. 617.
The Mohne Dam the day after it was burst by the famous Dambusters bombing raid by RAF Squadron No. 617 in 1943.

X. Bibliography

To ensure continuity of material, all of the external web pages linked and presented on our site were cached in May 2012. Readers are recommended to explore the current links for any changes.

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XI. References