Hydro Development in Canada: An Update

New developments, using both traditional and emerging technologies, are being pursued to add substantially to Canada’s hydro capacity. In this article, the Canadian Hydropower Association provides a progress report on new hydro development in Canada.

By Pierre Fortin and Gabrielle Collu

The future looks bright for hydropower in Canada. As demand for energy continues to rise in the country, the National Energy Board projects an increase in hydropower’s share of the energy market to 65 percent by 2015. Potential for additional new hydro exists in all provinces and territories.

Hydro in Canada: a brief history

The use of water to generate electricity began in Canada as early as the 1880s, when generating stations were built for industry and, in some cases, used to power nearby streetlights and street railways. At first, industry settled near the waterpower source, attracting settlement and other industries eager to use the cheap, abundant energy. In this way, remote regions were opened up, and local economies grew. The subsequent prosperity offered residents better health, education, and quality of life.

From the early 1900s to the 1960s, provinces established public utilities to ensure a steady supply of reasonably priced electricity to their citizens. The early 20th century also saw an increase in industry that relied on hydropower, such as aluminium smelting. In this way, each hydropower station, multiplied across regions, fostered an energy-rich, modern, prosperous nation. To date, more than 70,000 MW of hydropower has been developed in Canada, which now has about 475 hydroelectric generating plants. More are in the works.

While the hydropower industry can be credited with positive spinoffs, such as stimulating the economy, another benefit has been the industry’s more diplomatic role in treaty negotiations, both between countries and between Canadian governments and aboriginal peoples.

For example, in 1964, Canada and the U.S. ratified the Columbia River Treaty, which required the construction of three dams in British Columbia (completed 1967 to 1973) to control floods and to store the water that the U.S. would use for hydropower generation. In return, British Columbia was entitled to half of the additional power generated.

In another international agreement, the flow of water over Niagara Falls is controlled by the International Niagara Control Works, approved in 1953 and run jointly by the New York Power Authority and Ontario Power Generation.

An example of diplomacy between a government and an aboriginal people is The James Bay & Northern Québec Agreement of 1975, the first modern land claim settlement in Canada. This agreement established the rights and responsibilities of two First Nations, Cree and Inuit, and of the other parties involved in the La Grande hydro development. Two years later, a similar agreement was signed by five First Nations, Manitoba Hydro, and the governments of Manitoba and Canada. As you will see in the following discussion of new hydropower projects, this kind of negotiation continues to be very important for the hydropower industry.

Necessity is the mother of invention — this has been true for the hydropower industry, which has cultivated innovators from its early days, driven by the need to overcome distance and geography. Where was the first long-distance electricity transmission in the British Empire? Québec, in 1897, for 27 kilometers. That first step eventually led to the 735-kilovolt high-voltage transmission line that linked the Manicouagan and Outardes generating stations to Québec City and Montréal in 1965.1 Other technological advances in the field include the first pumped-storage plant in Canada at Sir Adam Beck, Niagara Falls, Ontario, installed in 1957. In 1969, the world’s largest multiple-arch-and-buttress dam was constructed in Québec (the Daniel-Johnson). Another world’s largest, the 5,328-MW Robert-Bourassa underground generating station, was built in 1981. Now, Canada’s expertise in hydropower is recognized around the world.


Despite these advances, the last decades of the 20th century saw a general slowdown in the Canadian hydropower industry.2 There are many reasons for this slowdown, which affected the industry not only as a whole but also each project specifically. First, the rampant post-war demand for electricity favored fossil-fuel powered generating stations, because they were quicker to build. A hydropower project requires eight to 12 years of preparation, from planning to commissioning, whereas a thermal power plant could be operational in two to four years. Ironically, although energy needs were greater than ever before, there was rising opposition from certain groups against large hydro projects. Tellingly, the downturn in hydropower paralleled Canada’s rising greenhouse gas emissions, which rose 25 percent from 1990 to 2005.

Second, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) and the Canadian Fisheries Act (CFA) presented the industry with regulations that became so onerous that they were obstacles, even though the industry agreed with the principles of protecting fisheries and the environment. Duplication of processes, uncertainty regarding the outcome, and timing and requirements of the environmental assessment process all created uncertainty. Because hydropower projects require more capital and longer construction times than other power sources, they are more affected by uncertainty in the industry.

Bill C-32, the long-awaited act to amend and modernize the Fisheries Act of 1868, was tabled in the House of Commons and received First Reading in November 2007. Parliament was dissolved in September 2008 before the bill received its Second Reading. The Canadian Hydropower Association (CHA) has worked with Fisheries Canada on such issues as the maintenance, modernization, and expansion of existing facilities, as well as reasonable mitigation and compensation measures. Meanwhile, the hydropower industry has been protecting fish with, for example, fish ladders, tunnels, and, most recently, eco-friendly turbines that reduce fish mortality.

Table 1: Examples of Hydro Construction Under Way in Canada
Click here to enlarge image

Third, the environmental assessment process put too much emphasis on local effects without considering large-scale effects on the environment, such as acid rain, smog, and global warming, which again favored fossil fuel power plants over hydropower plants. CHA has done much to raise public awareness of the environmental benefits of hydropower as a clean renewable energy. In addition, the association has worked to ensure the establishment of a fair, efficient, and timely authorization process for new hydropower projects. (For more on the association’s activities, visit the Internet site: www.canhydropower.org.)

There is some light at the end of the tunnel: the Major Projects Management Office (MPMO) was initiated in October 2007 to streamline the federal regulatory process for major resource projects. Mandated by the Ministry of Natural Resources to improve the efficiency of the regulatory review process by working with other departments and agencies, the MPMO is a single point of entry into the federal regulatory process, providing guidelines, coordinating project agreements and timelines, and tracking the progression of projects through the review process.


By the turn of the century, power companies began to realize that the demand for electricity was exceeding the supply. The combination of population growth of 17 percent and economic growth of 30 percent increased energy use. The arrival of the 21st century brought a renaissance of the hydropower industry. Across the country came recognition that hydropower could retard the advancement of global warming by reducing or displacing national and continental production of greenhouse gases. One can see evidence of this in the energy plans of BC Hydro and Manitoba Hydro, and in Hydro-Québec’s sustainable development policy, all of which call for energy conservation and sustainable energy projects that are renewable and clean or non-emitting, including both large and small hydropower projects. As well, in the past few years, politicians at both the provincial and federal level have vocally supported hydropower as a renewable energy. As a result of this burgeoning interest in hydropower, new hydropower projects were planned, and projects that had been years in the planning were finally under construction.

Columbia Power Corporation and the Columbia Basin Trust recently completed construction of a new 120-MW powerhouse, just downstream of the existing Brilliant Dam and 145-MW powerhouse on the Kootenay River in British Columbia. With the new powerhouse, the owners are maximizing power production at the site. (Photo courtesy Columbia Power)
Click here to enlarge image

Some of the projects recently completed or nearing completion are expansions to existing hydropower stations, such as Sir Adam Beck 1 and 2 in Ontario and the Brilliant Expansion in British Columbia. Others are more extensive in scope, such as Wuskwatim in Manitoba and Eastmain-1-A/Sarcelle/Rupert in Québec. Table 1 provides details on these four projects.

In the process of refurbishing its aging hydropower stations, Ontario Power Generation completed a nine-year major upgrade of Sir Adam Beck 2 in 2005, increasing its potential generating capacity by 194 MW. Now under construction is the 10.4-kilometer Niagara Tunnel; when complete, it will supply enough water to the Sir Adam Beck Generating Complex to increase output by 14 percent or to power 160,000 houses per year by 2009.3,4

Construction of the 200-MW Wuskwatim project is under way along the Burntwood River in northern Manitoba. Wuskwatim Power Limited Partnership, a partnership of Manitoba Hydro and the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, is the developer. (Photo courtesy Manitoba Hydro)
Click here to enlarge image

The Brilliant Expansion Project, near Castelgar, British Columbia, was completed in 2008 by partners Columbia Power Corporation and the Columbia Basin Trust, who purchased and began upgrading the 60-year-old Brilliant Dam in 1996. On the Kootenay River just below Brilliant Dam, the 120-MW Expansion project includes a new powerhouse (built 2003-2007), a short intake channel, and a power and access tunnel. Ninety percent of the 226 gigawatt-hours (GWh) produced each year will be sold to BC Hydro.5

Having successfully adapted their plans to meet the exigencies of the Environment Act of Manitoba and the Canada-Manitoba Agreement on Environmental Assessment Cooperation, the Wuskwatim Power Limited Partnership is now a mere four years from completion of the low-head (22-meter) Wuskwatim Generating Station at the Taskinigup Falls on the Burntwood River. The project includes construction of an access road, a main dam, spillway, powerhouse, a channel, three turbines and generators, work camps, and new transmission lines and substations. The project will add 200 MW to Manitoba Hydro’s network.6

For its Eastmain-1-A/Sarcelle/Rupert project and expansion of the La Grande complex, Hydro-Québec has begun construction. The project includes building two powerhouses: 768-MW Eastmain-1-A near the existing 480-MW Eastmain-1 project and 150-MW Sarcelle at the outlet of the Opinaca Reservoir. For the diversion of the Rupert River, the utility is building four dams, 74 dikes, eight hydraulic structures, a spillway, two diversion bays, a 2.9-kilometer-long tunnel, and a network of canals. The diverted water will first pass through the Eastmain and Sarcelle turbines, and then go on to increase the flow through the existing generating stations: Robert-Bourassa, 1,998-MW La-Grande-2-A, and 1,368-MW La Grande-1, thus making multiple use of the diverted water. Scheduled for completion in 2012, the project will increase Hydro-Québec’s average annual output by about 8,700 GWh or additional capacity of 893 MW.7

Table 2: Examples of Future Hydro Projects in Canada
Click here to enlarge image

The two large projects, Wuskwatim and Eastmain-1-A/Sarcelle/Rupert, are also the two for which important agreements were negotiated between the public utilities and the local aboriginal communities. An agreement known as the Paix des Braves, signed in 2002 by the James Bay Cree and the government of Québec, and the subsequent Boumhounan Agreement, ensured that the Eastmain-1-A/Sarcelle/Rupert project involved the Cree from preliminary studies to project development and follow up. In addition to employment at the sites, the Cree would be involved in pre-dam tree harvest and wildlife relocation, for example.

The 2006 Wuskwatim Project Development Agreement makes clear the responsibilities of Manitoba Hydro (building, managing, and operating Wuskwatim) and the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) (environmental monitoring and stewardship). In addition, the NCN will own up to 33 percent of the project and related revenues. The Wuskwatim Agreement is the first formal partnership arrangement between a First Nation and Manitoba Hydro. While drawing on aboriginal traditional knowledge for planning and design, both agreements ensure business training and job opportunities for local communities, from preliminary road construction to dam maintenance. Negotiations with aboriginal communities were considered a challenge in the past; now they can be viewed in a more positive light. These agreements set the industry standard for cooperation with local communities.

Looking forward

The future looks bright for hydropower in Canada, particularly as we have a large reserve of undeveloped hydropower, estimated to be about 163,000 MW of technical potential, over twice the amount in operation. Québec, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland, and Labrador hold significant resources, but there is potential available in all provinces and territories. And a good thing there is, because the demand for energy will continue to rise by about 1.3 percent, according to Natural Resources Canada’s Canada’s Energy Outlook: The Reference Case 2006.

Hydro-Québec proposes developing a 1,550-MW, four-powerhouse hydroelectric complex on the Romaine River, in the Lower North Shore Region of Québec. In 2008, the utility submitted an environmental impact statement to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the Québec Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks, indicating the project’s environmental effects can be mitigated. (Photo courtesy Hydro-Québec)
Click here to enlarge image

Some exciting hydropower projects are being studied from east to west in Canada. Table 2 on page 12 details eight examples. If commissioned, their total expenditure would be more than C$60 billion. In Nova Scotia, for example, which has had the 20-MW Annapolis Tidal Generating Station operating since 1984, research is being conducted on an innovative in-stream tidal technology. Unlike the existing tidal facility, the new turbines would be installed under the water and operate similarly to wind turbines. The government of Nova Scotia is supporting a demonstration facility near the Minas Channel to test new tidal technologies; this demonstration facility will be the first of its kind in North America.8

In the west, the large-scale Site C project on the Peace River, for example, will reverse the fact that British Columbia is now a net importer of electricity. At the same time, Site C, like Eastmain-1-A, will make the most efficient use of river water that is already stored and used by two dams upstream.

More astounding is the scope of some of the projects now being considered. For example, the Conawapa Generating Station on the Lower Nelson River would be the largest hydroelectric project ever built in northern Manitoba. The intention is to exceed domestic demand in order to export electricity to Ontario and the U.S. There is already a Memorandum of Understanding between Ontario and Manitoba to improve transmission lines so that Ontario can buy power from Manitoba. Even oil-rich Alberta plans to export electricity to the U.S. from its run-of-river Slave River project.

The Lower Churchill plan for two potential sites in Labrador (Gull Island and Muskrat Falls) would produce enough hydropower for 1.5 million households, or to export to Ontario, eastern Canada, and the northeastern U.S.. While Hydro-Québec already exports power to the U.S., it is planning new transmission lines that would double its export to Ontario.

The future projects listed in Table 2 on page 12, in addition to the numerous smaller projects in planning throughout Canada, must all prove that they will bring social, environmental, and economic benefits to the affected regions. Each must pass rigorous assessments, define project characteristics, determine environmental effects, and establish mitigation measures and compliance monitoring and environmental follow-up programs. Once the assessment hurdles are cleared, they must establish the development schedule and cost. At least two of the projects (Site C and Lower Mattagami) must reach an agreement with respective aboriginal communities; Hydro-Québec has already made an accord with the Nutaskuan community for the Romaine project.

Negotiations between aboriginal communities and the hydropower industry have come such a long way that they are now considered a bonus rather than a hindrance. For example, according to the former Ontario Minister of Energy Dwight Duncan, Ontario Power Generation’s proposed Lower Mattagami Project “offers the additional benefit of the potential for a commercial relationship with First Nations.” Discussions are ongoing.4

The hydropower projects that are already commissioned serve as proof that the hydropower industry, expert in the arts of negotiation and design, will be able to take their plans and turn them into concrete. Small wonder, then, that the National Energy Board projects an increase in hydropower’s share of the energy market to 65 percent from 60 percent by 2015. As global warming and efforts to reduce greenhouse gases push Canadians toward public transit (electric rail) and hybrid cars, and as variable weather conditions increase reliance on heating and air conditioning, this figure is certain to rise dramatically in the coming decades, because hydropower is a non-emitting clean renewable source of energy. n

Mr. Fortin and Ms. Collu may be reached at the Canadian Hydropower Association, 340 Albert Street, Suite 1300, Ottawa, Ontario K1R 7Y6 Canada; (1) 613-751-6655; E-mail: info@ canhydropower.org. For more information about hydropower in Canada, visit www.canhydropower.org.


  1. The Engineering Institute of Canada, during its centennial in 1987, awarded a certificate for a major engineering achievement to Hydro-Québec’s very high-voltage transmission system.
  2. By 1920, more than 97 percent of electricity in Canada came from hydropower. Today, that figure has fallen to 60 percent.
  3. Everdell, Richard A., “Increasing Power Generation at Niagara Falls,” Hydro Review, Volume XXVII, No. 4, July 2008, pages 24-28.
  4. www.opg.com.
  5. www.columbiapower.org.
  6. www.hydro.mb.ca.
  7. www.hydroquebec.com.
  8. www.minas.ns.ca, www.gov.ns.ca.

Pierre Fortin is president and Gabrielle Collu, PhD, is communications and public relations specialist for the Canadian Hydropower Association (CHA). Founded in 1998, CHA is the national association dedicated to representing the interests of the hydropower industry.


Previous articleHR Volume 27 Issue 7
Next articleUPDATE – New refurbishment bid date for India’s 1,500-MW Nathpa Jhakri

No posts to display