Guest Editorial — By Pierre Fortin
Pierre Fortin is president of the Canadian Hydropower Association based in Ottawa, Canada [www.canhydropower.org].
Sitting on the train somewhere between Ottawa and Montreal, I overheard a conversation that would strike fear in the heart of any hydropower developer. Two young men were talking about the construction of the 893-MW Eastmain-1-A/Rupert diversion and La Sarcelle project in Northern Québec, launched in January 2006. This hydro project represents C$4 billion in investments, the equivalent of 27,000 jobs, and 8.5 terrawatt-hours of clean electricity a year when it is completed in 2012.
The Canadian Hydropower Association and its members celebrated the approval of the largest renewable project in Canada because it will contribute to meeting electricity needs while addressing air quality and climate change concerns.
One of the young men on the train was reminiscing about a canoe trip on the Rupert River a few summers ago. He deplored the fact that the governments of Québec and Canada approved the destruction of what he termed “one of the last great pristine rivers in North America.” As their conversation evolved, the two young men listed the ills attributed to hydropower — mercury contamination, methane emissions, population displacement, and habitat destruction. I restrained myself from intervening, although it became increasingly difficult to do so. I didn’t think wise words from someone old enough to be their father would have compelled them to see reason.
They concluded with a sigh of relief that large hydro’s time was definitely over, the era of big water projects buried in the past, along with black and white televisions and record players. They were confident that today’s electricity needs could be met through efficiency and conservation measures, and a few wind farms. The latter, they agreed, must only be built up north, away from population centers and picturesque landscapes.
These two young men represent Generation Y, or the Internet Generation, born between 1978 and 2000. If their conversation is indicative of the thinking of their generation, then the hydropower industry has a problem. This overheard conversation makes clear the divide between proponents and opponents of hydropower development — a divide that could become generational rather than political or environmental. What I heard forced me to come to terms with the fact that hydropower proponents, including the Canadian Hydropower Association, need to do a much better job of communicating the advantages of hydropower to younger generations.
Hydropower is undergoing a renaissance, with projects being developed across North and South America, Asia, and Africa. However, the industry has not yet renewed its workforce and could soon face serious shortcomings in skilled workers. The industry urgently needs to think about how it will attract a new generation of workers with different values and expectations. Moreover, the industry needs to find ways to dispel the myths and misconceptions about hydropower.
Bridging the generation gap
Generation Y-ers are motivated by different things and communicate differently from Baby Boomers or even Gen-X-ers. How do we convince them of the advantages of hydropower?
First, we need to listen to them and acknowledge their values, vision, and aspirations. It is essential to understand who they are, where they come from, and where they are going in order to properly address their concerns and be relevant to them.
Second, we need to provide opportunities for real two-way dialogue. The hydropower industry has changed significantly over the past 30 years, in part due to dialogue with stakeholders, such as First Nations, environmental groups, and civil society organizations. Our dialogue with today’s youth will contribute to adaptation and innovation, and help us be an industry of the present and the future.
Third, we must continue to provide credible, up-to-date, and relevant information about hydropower in the context of sustainable energy development (economic, social, and environmental aspects).
Finally, we need to share common spaces. By this I mean not only inviting them to participate in our activities and events but also using the right communication tools to reach them — for example, blogs. Remember that Gen-Yers came of age with broadband, cell phones, and iPods.
Back to the future
Hydropower facilities have a long service life, more than 100 years with refurbishment. This means that several generations can benefit from clean, renewable electricity. Hydropower projects also require several years in the planning and construction, compared with thermal plants that require only a few years from start to finish. Hydropower developments require a long-term vision. Let’s start talking with tomorrow’s generation now.