Hydropower: Looking to the Futureby André Bolduc
The builders of the first hydroelectric generating stations in Québec, in the early 20th century, could never have imagined that their modest facilities were laying the foundations for an energy mix that is unique in the world. Nor could they have known that a century later, hydropower would still be the power of the future. The road has been long and filled with obstacles, but has seen many bold initiatives stemming from the desire to make the most of Québec’s immense water potential and to connect generating sites that are far from major load centres.
Here are some important milestones in the history of Québec hydropower and of Hydro-Québec, which is internationally renowned for its clean, renewable and reliable generating option.
The 1920s: electricity comes of age
As new applications were constantly being found for electricity and the pace of industrialization ramped up in the mid-1920s, investors took on increasingly ambitious hydropower development projects. Two examples are the Isle-Maligne generating station built to run the aluminum smelters of Alcan (now Rio Tinto Alcan) in the Saguenay region, and the Beauharnois run-of-river generating station, strategically located on the Saint-Laurent to supply power grids in Montréal, Ontario and the northeastern United States.
Creation of Hydro-Québec, a matter of social justice
The Great Depression (1929–1939) brought to light the abusive practices—inadequate service, high rates, exorbitant profits—of the electricity monopolies that were operating in Québec. The government was urged to intervene and to regulate a service that had become essential. On April 14, 1944, the Québec government created Hydro-Québec and gave it a mandate to manage the electric and gas facilities of the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company. From the start, the new utility faced a formidable challenge: meeting demand that was spiraling upward at an astounding 7% per year. To cope with this growth, Hydro-Québec had to double its generating capacity every ten years until the beginning of the 1980s.
A time of major technical challenges
To add to its task, in the early 1960s, Hydro-Québec was given a mandate to supply all customers in Québec. Having obtained approval to purchase the electricity suppliers operating in the province, on May 1, 1963, Hydro-Québec began the process of acquiring 11 private distributors, 45 cooperatives and some 20 municipal power systems. The government made the company solely responsible for planning the use of Québec’s water resources. However, suitable generating sites were farther and farther away from the major load centres, which posed another formidable challenge. To transmit large quantities of electricity over long distances, Hydro-Québec had to innovate. In the 1960s, this led to the construction of the world’s first 735 kV lines. During the 1987 centennial of engineering in Canada, this exploit was celebrated as being one of the top ten achievements by Canadian engineers in the 20th century. In fact, transmission at 735 kV made it possible to develop remote areas not only in Québec, but around the world. In Québec, Hydro-Québec strives to mitigate the impact of transmission lines on the landscape, as part of its general policy of ensuring that all its infrastructure projects are environmentally acceptable and well received by the host communities, in addition to being economically profitable.
Pushing the limits: Hydro-Québec becomes a leader
Having solved the problem of long-distance transmission, Hydro-Québec built three hydropower megaprojects in succession. First, the Manic-Outardes complex, an undertaking that involved many technical achievements and world firsts: the first 735-kV lines; Daniel-Johnson dam, the world’s largest multiple-arch-and-buttress dam; Manic-2 dam (Jean-Lesage generating station), the biggest hollow-joint gravity dam; and Manic-3 dam (René-Lévesque generating station), with a double cutoff wall that reaches a depth of 120 metres in the riverbed. Next came the Churchill Falls development (today with installed capacity of 5,428 MW), built in Labrador on a site with ideal conditions. Then the “Project of the Century”—building the La Grande complex in the Baie-James region (1970–1996)—reaffirmed the choice of hydropower in preference to conventional thermal or nuclear power. Today, the soundness of that decision seems more clear than ever.
Construction of the La Grande complex meant that Hydro-Québec had to adapt its construction methods to extreme environments and conditions. The company also had to develop new kinds of cooperation with Aboriginal communities (the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement, numerous sectoral agreements, and the Paix des Braves agreement) and to take environmental issues into account right from the planning stage of any major infrastructure project.
The 21st century: conquering new markets
Today, Hydro-Québec operates installed capacity of 35,829 MW that is 98%* hydropower, making the company one of the world’s largest producer of hydroelectricity. Furthermore, Hydro-Québec’s huge reservoirs store the reserve power necessary for development of intermittent renewable energy sources (wind and solar power). The company is pursuing its efforts to promote energy efficiency while continuing to expand its hydropower generating capacity to meet Québec’s future demand and supply the border markets interconnected with its system. Through these interconnections, Hydro-Québec plays a leading role in reducing North America’s carbon footprint, because the northeastern U.S. wants to reduce its fossil fuel consumption (50% of its power generation is fossil fuel-based), and hydropower is an obvious solution. Electricity's second coming-of-age, already under way, will see ongoing penetration of markets traditionally dominated by the petroleum industry: personal and public transportation. Early in the 21st century, hydropower remains, in every way, the power of the future.
*December 31, 2012, figures