Canadian hydropower: dirty energy & social injustice

Hydropower “is not a green project…what you are buying in power coming down in to the United States is what I find equivalent to the blood diamonds in Africa.”

              –Marjorie Flowers, Inuit woman and Labrador Land Protector speaking about the Muskrat Falls megadam, April 27, 2019, Local Environmental Action Conference, USA

Protesting Muskrat Falls megadam, Labrador, Canada

JUNE 7, 2019 BREAKING: Indigenous communities and allies protest megadams on Monday June 10, 2019 in Ottawa, Canada; will deliver petition with 15,000 signatures to Trudeau Government

Find out more:

www.facebook.com/events/2613710008643658/

More about this event: Groups Protest at Annual Dam Conference in Ottawa  waterkeeper.org/news/page/2/

In May 2015, dam opponents called on the International Coalition on Large Dams (ICOLD) to include grassroots voices at their 87th Annual Meeting in Ottawa, Canada Their letter states, “At a time when Indigenous and non-Indigenous land and water defenders here and around the globe are struggling with the negative impacts of large dams, we see that the big and bold promises made by your organization do not match the sordid reality on the ground.” Read the letter here:

More about megadams below:

Romaine River, before being dammed by Hydro-Quebec in Canada.

The former Grandes Chutes on the Romaine River dammed by Hydro-Quebec. Photo: A. Lathem  

 

Grandes Chutes today, after Hydro-Quebec’s Romaine River project that includes four megadams.

 

About us: NAMRA is an alliance aiming to:

  1. Debunk the myth that Canadian hydropower is “clean” energy, and
  2. Shut down markets for dirty Canadian hydropower by opposing the construction of transmission corridors that are proposed for shipping it to remote markets.

Below is an overview of the issue.  More information and references can be found on individual topic pages. (Human Rights, Climate, Environmental Impacts, etc.)

Overview of hydropower: This is the creation of electricity through the damming and then gradual release of water that runs through turbines. The classification of large or megadam scale simply relates to size of the project; generally, a  large scale facility has an energy capacity of over 30 megawatts. (Source: Sierra Club) Above that we consider it a megadam.  In North America, the Upper Churchill facility in Labrador, Canada on the Mista Shipu (or Grand or Churchill River) has the highest capacity in North America at 5,428 megawatts, and can expand to 9,252 with the proposed Lower Churchill project at Muskrat Falls.  (The Hoover Dam was originally 1,345 then upgraded in 1993 to 2080 MW. (Source: Grand Riverkeeper, Labrador)

Hydropower from the Upper Churchill megadam is used in Massachusetts and other New England states. (Hydro-Quebec has a long term contract with Nalcor Energy to buy the hydropower from the Upper Churchill dam.  https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-supreme-court-sides-with-hydro-quebec-in-dispute-with-newfoundland-and-2 )

Large and megadam projects facilities have far-reaching and long term harmful impacts on human rights, the environment, and the economy.

Negative impacts of hydropower

Human Rights Violations: Damming rivers permanently disrupts the balance of ecosystems, displacing people and animals by destroying the environment they had depended on for thousands of years. Hydro-Quebec, a New England supplier of hydropower, resettled thousands of First Nation communities and devastated their traditional fishing and hunting grounds. The destruction of First Nation lands continues throughout Canada due to megadam construction and operation. In Labrador, where Hydro-Quebec gets power from the Upper Churchill, with plans to dam the Lower Churchill at Muskrat Falls, Indigenous people and non-Indigenous allies have petitioned the United Nations on the grounds that the Muskrat Falls dam has gone ahead without the “free, prior and informed consent of all Indigenous affected.”  

This is the equivalent of “the blood diamonds of Africa” as described by Marjorie Flowers on April 27, 2019 in speaking about the imports of hydropower from Canada to the U.S.

Flowers, an Inuit woman from Labrador, arrested and jailed for 10 days in a maximum security prison for protesting the Muskrat Falls megadam.  https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/what-is-house-arrest-like-1.4244435

Members of the Inuit, Metis, Innu, and Euro-Canadian communities have been protesting the Muskrat Falls megaproject for many years. Photo: Briarpatch Magazine.

David Abel. “In Québec, it’s power versus a people on hydroelectricity,” Boston Globe, Jan. 23, 2018. https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/01/22/land-full-hydropower-strife-comes-with-electrons/

Methylmercury Poisoning: Mercury is naturally present in soil and vegetation; when flooded it is converted to toxic methylmercury by bacteria in the water column, and bioaccumulates through the food chain. It can persist in some species for 30-50 years– requiring communities to abandon the wild foods they have relied upon for millennia, or risk mercury poisoning.

In 2016, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering published a peer-reviewed study, Future Impacts of Hydroelectric Power Development on Methylmercury Exposures of Canadian Indigenous Communities. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.6b04447

According to the study,

“Results show a projected 10-fold increase in riverine MeHg [bioaccumulative neurotoxin methylmercury] levels and a 2.6-fold increase in estuarine surface waters. MeHg concentrations in locally caught species increase 1.3 to 10-fold depending on time spent foraging in different environments. Mean Inuit MeHg exposure is forecasted to double following flooding and over half of the women of childbearing age and young children in the most northern community are projected to exceed the U.S. EPA’s reference dose. Equal or greater aqueous MeHg concentrations relative to Muskrat Falls are forecasted for 11 sites across Canada, suggesting the need for mitigation measures prior to flooding [of land to create dam reservoirs.]

www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/health-risks-hydroelectric-projects/  www.makemuskratright.com

Climate Disaster.  “Hydropower is dirty energy, and should be treated like fossil fuels.” The False Promise of Hydropower, www.waterkeeper.org/magazine/summer-2015-3/

“Construction of hydroelectric dams around the world is surging dramatically, guided by the false premise they produce clean energy, even as study after study refutes this claim.”  Id.

Comparisons of hydropower emissions to those of natural gas facilities do not take into account the emissions from the production of cement and steel, and from the use of earth-moving machinery, in dam construction. More importantly, they do not factor in the changes in land use and the loss of forests. The extensive deforestation associated with dam construction –  clearing reservoir areas,  providing timber companies access to previously inaccessible forests, and  clearing 800-mile long swaths of forest for transmission corridors  – is never factored into estimates of the climate impacts of dams.

Global Forest Watch has identified that “over 80 percent of proposed and 90 percent of potential hydropower developments in Canada would occur in or within 5 kilometers of presently intact forest landscapes.” These intact forest landscapes serve a vital role in climate stability. North America’s boreal forest holds as much carbon as emissions from 26 years of burning fossil fuels at today’s global rate. Canada’s 1.4 billion acres of forest, containing the majority of the world’s peatland, must be protected, scientists warn, to avoid this dangerous release of greenhouse gasses.

Free flowing rivers and floodplains are needed for climate resilience. Wild rivers, natural floodplains and wetlands, as well as native boreal forests,  are needed for climate resilience. Healthy wetlands and floodplains mitigate against flooding and store water, as do forests. Nutrients flowing from wild rivers help the oceans to absorb carbon. One new study shows that habitat restoration of rivers, forests and wetlands could help us to keep warming below 2 degrees. In other words, an already degraded biosphere cannot sustain additional assaults, especially in a time of climate disruption.

Forests cleared to create reservoirs for Hydro Quebec’s Romaine Project. Photo: A. Lathem

Methane Emissions. When hydropower facilities are created and lands flooded, trees and soils are disturbed. Natural processes transform those materials into methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Life-cycle emissions of some large scale hydropower facilities can be over 0.5 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour. Natural gas burning for comparison has life cycle emissions averaging between 0.6 and 2 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour.  

Recent science reveals startling evidence about the climate impacts of hydropower:

“And we found that the estimates of methane emissions per area of reservoir are about 25 percent higher than previously thought, which we think is significant given the global boom in dam construction, which is currently underway.”

Deemer et. al., BioScience, 2016, Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Reservoir Water Surfaces: A New Global Synthesis.  About 79 percent of greenhouse gas equivalents from reservoirs are methane, the others are CO2 and nitrous oxide.

Despite the well-established science documenting emissions from hydropower, its greenhouse gases escape scrutiny because they are not included in the U. N. or state greenhouse gas accounting systems. The U.S. Department of Energy reinforces the myth of clean hydropower.

Environment and Habitat: The creation of hydropower comes with the necessary destruction of large ecosystems. Damming rivers permanently disrupts the balance of ecosystems, displacing people and animals by destroying the environment they had depended on for thousands of years.

Coastal Erosion and Sediment Depletion: Rivers and streams typically carry sediments downstream, ultimately depositing them on ocean and lake shores. Dams and reservoirs built along rivers are an interruption to this flow, trapping huge amounts of river sediment–in the case of larger dams, up to 100% of it. Subsequently, the sediment is unable to be deposited along riverbeds and shorelines, leading to massive amounts of coastal erosion. For instance on the Sagar islands, a dam led to coastal erosion occurring seven times quicker than it did before the dam was built. Trapping sediments also deprives the seas of carbon-sequestering diatoms.

Animals: Fish can get drawn into turbines, have increased predation due to the altered habitats, and have been shown to suffer from stress and injuries passing through hydroelectric dams. Reservoirs cultivate excess algae and weeds, crowding out other species. Reservoirs also are lower in dissolved oxygen, which can lead to some parts of the water being unlivable. The impact on animals has been demonstrated in Maine, as ever since the removal of the Great Works Dam in 2012 and the Veazie Dam in 2013 the number of salmon and other fish tripled from the previous year with the dam. This also was a 45 fold increase from the 2012 numbers.  Hydro-Quebec’s megaprojects on James Bay are linked to declines in eider ducks.  Nalcor’s Labrador projects are linked to declines in the Red Wine and other caribou herds. 

Megadams and Corporate Profits.  Hydro-Quebec is in the dam building business and has been since the 1940s.  Without dams, it goes out of business.  It is desperate to find new markets for its hydropower and to keep building new dams. Hydro-Quebec is not interested in “sustainable” energy or the enviroment or local communities.  It is about the corporate economics and business for their contractors — such as SNC Lavilin, cement manufacturers, multinational engineering firms, and so forth.  In order to grow profits, Hydro-Quebec needs more markets – and has targeted the U.S. with a greenwashing campaign, partnering with multi-national corporations to promote new and bigger transmission corridors for markets in Boston, New York and other metropolitan areas.

The CEO of Hydro-Quebec was blunt when he said the future of his company depends on the U.S. importing Canadian hydropower:

Without exports, our profits are in trouble

Hydro Quebec CEO, Financial Post, https://business.financialpost.com/commodities/energy/without-exports-our-profits-are-in-trouble-hydro-quebec-plugs-into-u-s-markets-for-growth.  

Undercuts local renewable energy economy.  The planned transmission corridors through the northeast are technologically incompatible with regional projects.

“Yes, we need transmission upgrades to build a clean energy economy, but the costs for projects to interconnect with this type of line are prohibitive… we are locking ourselves into 20-year contracts with Hydro Quebec, and therefore exporting our energy dollars out of the region for 20 years. This same electricity could be supplied by regional clean generation, keeping those energy dollars invested locally, bringing jobs and regional economic growth.”

Sierra Club Massachusetts, Executive Director, Quebec hydro isn’t a good fit for Mass., CommonWealth Magazine, Aug. 2018. 

Destructive transmission corridors:  Hydro-Quebec’s desperate need for profits and the willingness of some U.S. politicians to greenwash dirty hydropower has resulted in various schemes to build transmission corridors.  These corridors are proposed to cut through pristine wilderness areas and drill under scenic and iconic rivers. 

They are needed to bring hydropower from remote areas of Canada to U.S. metropolitan markets like Boston and New York over a thousand miles away from the rivers where the dams are located.  Communities along the corridor get little in return. New Hampshire residents and even regulators recognized the unacceptable negative impacts of the Eversource/Northern Pass transmission corridor through their state. Regulators rejected the Northern Pass.  Eversource has appealed.

Hydro-Quebec power transmission corridor.  Sept Isle, Quebec. Photo: A. Lathem

The key projects: 

Central Maine Power/Avangrid/Iberdrola, 145 miles Maine to Massachusetts.  A controversial project cutting a swarth through more than 50 miles of the Maine North Woods, the largest undeveloped forest east of the Mississippi River.  The transmission corridor will cross the Appalachian Trail three times and cross the the Kennebec River Gorge, the region’s crown  –to bring 1,200 MW of hydropower from remote areas in Canada over 1,000 miles to Boston.   

Northern Pass/Eversource  – 192 miles through New Hampshire including through the White Mt. National Forest

New England Clean Power Link/ TDI New England – 145 miles through Vermont

Vermont Green Line/National Grid – 60 miles through Vermont

Champlain Hudson Power Express a project of Blackstone/TDI- I 330 miles to NYC, including under Hudson River.

Empire State Connector – 265 miles to NYC

Atlantic Link (MA)/Emera – 375 mi. subsea cable to Plymouth, Massachusetts

Calling megadam hydropower “clean and green” and importing it to meet “renewable energy” mandates in the U.S. is an environmental and social injustice.  In the U.S., megadams on the scale of what is being built in Canada would never be allowed due to the unacceptable human, environmental and social costs.

Using Canadian hydropower makes consumers complicit in the cultural and environmental genocide of Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and the planet’s ecosystems.  

As stated by leading scientists from Michigan State University in a peer-reviewed journal: “Large dams seem to be everything that one should not try to build if one cares about sustainability. To move toward sustainability, future hydropower development needs to give more attention to how climate change may affect hydropower production and make greater efforts to reduce the environmental and social costs borne by people near the dams. In addition, those harmed by the dams need to be adequately compensated, the number of people that must be resettled should be reduced, and most importantly, innovative technologies that reduce all of these negative outcomes should be developed, especially instream turbines and other forms of renewable energy. 

Hydropower has been the leading source of so-called “renewable energy across the world, accounting for up to 71% of this supply as of 2016. This capacity was built up in North America and Europe between 1920 and 1970 when thousands of dams were built. Big dams stopped being built in developed nations, because the best sites for dams were already developed and environmental and social concerns made the costs unacceptable. Nowadays, more dams are being removed in North America and Europe than are being built. The hydropower industry moved to building dams in the developing world and since the 1970s,…”  https://www.pnas.org/content/115/47/11891

Read more: https://commonwealthmagazine.org/opinion/quebec-hydro-isnt-a-good-fit-for-mass/

The free-flowing Romaine River, still pristine in 2008. Indigenous peoples depended upon the river for millennia, with no negative impacts.

Solutions  There is an alternative to a continuing reliance on fossil fuels, on the one hand, and a reliance on large hydro, or industrial wind farms covering our mountain ridges, on the other – and that is to use less energy. That is the most shovel ready alternative, the least costly solution, and the one that will have the most benefit for local economies.

Award-winning documentary about Indigenous communities living in James Bay, Canada and Hydro-Quebec’s destruction of habitat for eider ducks by alteration of river flow in to the Bay. The community’s economy relies on the ducks for their down for personal use and sale.

Additional Sources:

Bronsom W. Giscom et.al. “Natural climate solutions,” PNAS, September 5, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1710465114

Leah Burrows, “Human Health Risks from Hydroelectric Projects,” Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Nov. 9. 2016. https://www.seas.harvard.edu/news/2016/11/human-health-risks-from-hydroelectric-projects

“Canada Largest Contributor To Deforestation Worldwide: Study,” The Huffington Post Canada. www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/09/05/canada-deforestation-worst-.

Global Forest Watch. Hydropower Developments in Canada: Number, Size and Jurisdictional and Ecological Distribution. https://globalforestwatch.ca/sites/gfwc/files/publications/20120118A_Hydro1_Number_Size_Distribution.pdf.

Kate Horner. “Hydropower is not the answer for climate resilience,” https://www.devex.com/news/opinion-hydropower-is-not-the-answer-for-climate-resilience-91523.

“Hydroelectric dams emit a billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, study finds.” The Guardian. Nov. 14, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/nov/14/hydroelectric-dams-emit-billion-tonnes-greenhouse-gas-methane-study-climate-change

Hydro Quebec Strategic Plan. http://www.hydroquebec.com/data/documents-donnees/pdf/strategic-plan.pdf

McKinsey Institute. “Fueling sustainable development: The energy productivity solution,” Oct. 2008, http://tinyurl.com/5ae9wn.

Andrew Nikiforuk, “Megadams Not Clean or Green, Says Expert,” The Tyee. Jan. 24, 2018. https://thetyee.ca/News/2018/01/24/Megadams-Not-Clean-Green/.

David Roland-Holst. “Energy Efficiency, Innovation, and Job Creation in California,” http://tinyurl.com/6gujnf

“The Power of Negawatts: Efficiency: The Greenest Energy Source.” https://www.internationalrivers.org/sites/default/files/attached-files/energyfactsheet.pdf.

Alexis Lathem. “Rage On, Sweet Romaine.” Alternatives Journal, Jan. 2014.www.alternativesjournal.ca

Ossie Michelin. “The Mighty Fight for Muskrat Falls,” Briarpatch. May 1, 1017. https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/the-mighty-fight-for-muskrat-falls