Resource Overview: Hydropower in Canada: Past, Present, and Future

To celebrate hydropower’s role as the leading source of electricity in Canada, the Canadian Hydropower Association produced Hydropower in Canada: Past Present and Future. This article is an excerpt from the book.

To celebrate hydropower’s role as the leading source of electricity in Canada, the Canadian Hydropower Association produced Hydropower in Canada: Past Present and Future. This article is an excerpt from the book.

From the late 1800s onward, hydropower stations have been constructed from coast to coast in Canada. Just as the construction of the national railway helped to define Canada as a country, so too did hydropower development.

Hydropower has enabled Canadians to meet their need for energy, making life easier and safer. Having opened up remote regions, attracted industries, stimulated economic growth, nurtured innovation, and created world-class expertise, hydropower has founded a modern economy. Drawing on the renewable resource of water, hydropower has contributed all of this without adding to air or water pollution.

In Canada, the first use of water to produce electricity was for a wheel built by the Ottawa Electric Light Company at Chaudieres Falls in 1881. It was used to power street lights and local mills. A few years later, street lamps on the Terrasse Dufferin in Quebec City were powered by a plant at Montmorency Falls, while lamps were lit in Montreal by a plant on the Lachine rapids. In southern Ontario, the oldest high-head hydropower generating station in Canada opened at DeCew Falls.

DeCew Falls 1, developed in 1898 by the Cataract Power Company to deliver electricity over 56 kilometres to the city of Hamilton, is still in operation today.

Leading source of electricity

The sources for electricity generation in Canada are diverse. They include natural gas, oil, coal, nuclear power, biomass, solar and wind power, and water. Over the years, hydropower has been the leading source of electricity in Canada, and its predominance continues today.

More than 70,000 MW of hydropower have already been developed in Canada. Approximately 475 hydroelectric generating plants across the country produce an average of 355 terawatt-hours per year – one terawatt-hour represents enough electricity to heat and power 40,000 houses.

Canada generates most of its electricity with water for five main reasons:

  1. Water is abundant.
  2. The technology is efficient.
  3. The service life of stations is long.
  4. The cost is competitive.
  5. The electricity produced is renewable and clean.


With many rivers across the country, Canada has hydropower in all regions. The top-producing provinces are Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador, with more than 95 percent of the total hydropower generation in Canada.

Canada still has immense undeveloped potential – more than twice the current capacity – and all provinces and territories have some hydropower potential.

Hydropower developments are being studied and planned throughout the country. They range from major projects to smaller ones, from run-of-river to pumped storage, and from well-established and proven technologies to new technologies using tidal and wave power.

Nova Scotia is home to one of only three tidal power plants in the world. The Annapolis Generating Station began operating in 1984. It channels the massive tidal power of the Bay of Fundy, which has the highest tides in the world.

Waste not, want not

Hydropower is one of the most efficient sources of energy. Modern hydropower stations can convert more than 95 percent of the available energy in the river into electricity, while the best fossil fuel power plants, the combined cycle cogeneration plants, are only about 60 percent efficient. Most conventional fossil fuel plants are less than 30 percent efficient. For example, when coal is burned to generate power, two-thirds of its energy is wasted. In addition, fossil fuels are not renewable, while water is renewed through the natural water (hydrologic) cycle.

Hydropower stations have a long service life, which can be extended further with refurbishment works. DeCew Falls 1 in Ontario was commissioned in 1898 and is still operating today; Pointe de Bois in Manitoba, commissioned in 1911, is still producing power; and Beauharnois in Quebec recently celebrated 75 years of operation.

In addition to extending the service life of hydropower facilities by decades, the rehabilitation of installations can provide an opportunity to improve the efficiency of facilities and increase their capacity to meet peak power demand.

Powering the economy

Since the development of the first hydropower facilities at the end of the 19th century, hydropower has contributed to building a prosperous and energy-rich nation. Water power brought clean electricity, thereby supporting the development of industry and commerce, which in turn nurtured the local economy through improved access to health, education, and enhanced quality of life.

Shawinigan Water and Power Company harnessed the potential of the 400-kilometre Saint-Maurice River in the early 1900s. Not only did it give birth to a city, it also attracted several important industries to the region, including pulp and paper and

aluminum. Eventually, electricity from Shawinigan was distributed over a vast territory. Thanks to the power of the falls, Shawinigan became the most modern city in the Commonwealth. For a while, it shared with Paris the title: City of Light.

The Granite Canal development in south-central Newfoundland includes a fish habitat compensation facility. This facility provides spawning and rearing habitat for fish displaced during construction of the hydro development.

Several companies, such as the Northern Aluminum Company (now Rio Tinto Alcan), Belgo-Canadian Pulp and Paper Company (now AbitibiBowater), and Canada Carbide Company, were drawn to Shawinigan by the abundance of water and electricity.

This pattern of water drawing industry to regions, and industry supporting hydropower development, is repeated in many regions across the country: Nechako River in British Columbia; Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean in Quebec; Niagara Falls in Ontario; and Grand Falls, Bishop’s Falls, and Deer Lake in Newfoundland and Labrador, to name just a few.

The hydropower industry also contributes to the Canadian economy by creating tens of thousands of jobs for the maintenance, upkeep, and refurbishment of hydropower installations, which represents hundreds of millions of dollars annually. In 2006 alone, Hydro-Quebec carried out refurbishment work worth a total of C$441 million.

Renewable, clean power

All human activity affects the environment. The production of energy is no different. However, some forms of energy are less damaging to the environment by virtue of being renewable and clean.

DeCew Falls in southern Ontario was developed in 1898 and is the oldest high-head hydropower generating station in Canada. The facility is still in operation today.

Rivers are a powerful source of clean and renewable energy. They can provide us with abundant, efficient, reliable, and affordable electricity. Relying on a clean and renewable resource – water – hydropower converts its natural flow into electricity without wasting or depleting water in the production of energy.

Although hydropower facilities in their construction phase can affect the local environment, such as modifying fish habitat and flooding lands, with careful planning their environmental footprint can be minimized. Mitigation and environmental enhancement measures, such as reforestation, wetland establishment, and fish reclamation, are implemented where necessary. When impacts cannot be mitigated, compensation schemes such as investing in the improvement of existing habitats are applied.

– The Granite Canal Hydroelectric Development, located in south-central Newfoundland, includes a fish habitat compensation facility providing 45,000 square metres of spawning and rearing habitat for tens of thousands of ouananiche (land-locked Atlantic salmon) and brook trout displaced following the Granite Canal diversion.

– The Exploits River Hydro Partnership development, located in central Newfoundland, includes fishway installations that allow passage for salmon in the river while avoiding the hydropower facilities at Grand Falls-Windsor. The safe passage of the salmon, together with the release of water from storage in dry periods, has contributed to the rebirth of the Exploits River as one of the most outstanding salmon rivers in North America.

– Lac Saint-Jean, a natural lake in Québec, is used as a reservoir to generate electricity for aluminum production, resulting in fluctuating water levels that affect the lake’s shorelines. In collaboration with the local community, Rio Tinto Alcan has undertaken to preserve the shoreline by raising breakwaters, planting vegetation, and building dikes to protect marshland, which is a nesting and spawning ground for birds and fish.

Looking ahead

Canada needs clean, reliable hydropower for future growth.

Even with significant efforts to reduce our consumption and to integrate more efficient technologies, electricity demand will continue to grow by about 1.2 percent annually over the coming decades because of population and economic growth. This could lead to further pressure on our environment.

Today, transportation and electricity, or more specifically the burning of coal and natural gas, are responsible for more than half of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Hydropower can play a role in reducing emissions in both sectors.

Electricity is an efficient way of powering cars, trains, and subways. When the source of power is water, not only is it efficient, but it is also clean. Both Vancouver’s Sky Train and vast trolley bus network, and Montreal’s subway and train, already work on hydropower, which has contributed to reducing emissions in these two cities. Imagine what the integration of electric cars could do.

Heating and air conditioning are huge consumers of electricity. Again, hydropower is a key solution. Manitoba and Quebec have among the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in Canada – twice as low as in the U.S. – thanks to hydropower’s predominant role in the energy supply of both provinces.

Fortunately, there is still the technical potential to more than double the existing hydropower capacity in Canada.

Not all of the available potential will be developed, because of technical challenges, cost, or unacceptable environmental trade-offs. Despite that, a significant amount will be developed. Why? Because clean, renewable hydropower is one of the best sources of electricity available from a technical, environmental, social, and economic perspective.

Hydropower can play a key role in meeting Canada’s growing electricity needs while reducing air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

A clean and renewable power source, hydropower will continue to be Canada’s preferred source of electricity.

Author’s note 

    All translation and adaptation rights reserved. Reproduction, in whole or in part, by any means whatsoever, is strictly forbidden without permission in writing from the Canadian Hydropower Association.

Founded in 1998, the Canadian Hydropower Association (CHA) is the national trade association dedicated to representing the interests of the hydropower industry. Its members span the breadth of the industry and, with nearly 50 members, include hydropower producers, manufacturers, developers, engineering firms, organizations and individuals interested in the field of hydropower. CHA members represent more than 95 percent of the hydropower capacity in Canada. The association is governed through an elected representative Board of Directors.   

Ordering Hydropower in Canada 

Hydropower in Canada: Past Present and Future, produced by the Canadian Hydropower Association, is free and available upon e-mail request to: It also can be obtained from the Internet at:

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