The neglected potential of medium-sized hydroelectric plants

While heated discussions are underway in Quebec regarding the development of oil and gas resources and the role of nuclear and wind power, a significant share of the province’s hydroelectric potential remains unexploited.

Hydroelectric production in Quebec is often associated exclusively with very large installations like the James Bay and Manicouagan projects. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Quebec government allows local communities to run small installations producing up to 50 megawatts (MW) of electricity.

However, with a favourable legal and political framework, several medium-sized hydroelectric sites (producing from 50 to 125 MW) could be developed in Quebec. The initiative for these projects would be entrusted to local and aboriginal communities, which are in a better position to appreciate all of their benefits. This neglected potential would therefore allow these communities to enrich themselves if they wish.

Positive effects on several levels

We estimate that there are some 50 potential sites where medium-sized plants could be built, which would add from 3000 to 5000 MW to Quebec’s hydroelectric production. Requiring four to six million dollars of investment for each MW of capacity installed, the total value of such a program could exceed ten billion dollars of private investment.

This hydroelectric production could be used to meet the needs of the province, or it could be exported. Hydroelectricity, of course, has the benefit of being a clean and renewable energy source. Each MW produced precludes the annual generation of some 10,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases and the combustion of around 2,500 tonnes of fuel. In addition, with fairly simple measures, it is possible to mitigate the environmental impacts while developing hydroelectric projects on the targeted sites.

Due to the current legal framework, though, Quebec has usually ignored medium-sized projects, which officially fall under the responsibility of Hydro-Québec. This crown corporation built up its expertise and its reputation thanks to large-scale projects by concentrating solely on energy production, especially since more modest projects are subject to the same procedural burdens as larger ones.

Hydro-Québec does not have a mandate to take into account the related benefits of the projects it develops, like touristic and recreational possibilities, real estate development and flood control. And yet, an analysis of these aspects can reveal that a project will turn out to be very advantageous for a given community.

And indeed, medium-sized power plants do allow for the development of touristic and recreational and real estate possibilities, which need to be taken into account. These inherently multipurpose projects imply the creation of large bodies of water, and therefore of beaches, of campgrounds, of nature trails, etc. Quebec is endowed with some 4,500 rivers and 500,000 lakes. However, among the most popular sites in the province for leisure, fishing and outdoor activities—not to mention the most well-known even outside Quebec—are the Gouin, Carillon, Baskatong, Dozois, Kipawa and Taureau reservoirs, which are the direct results of the development of hydroelectric installations.

Entrusting the projects to local communities

Medium-sized projects, however, require a process of study, a management method and even technical requirements that are different and more flexible than those that make sense for large scale projects. Several Quebec companies possess the skills and experience required to develop these medium-sized hydroelectric projects. They are in fact constantly developing them elsewhere around the world.

It should be left to regional county municipalities (RCM) and to aboriginal communities to decide whether or not to develop their own hydroelectric potentials and to choose their project partners (either Hydro-Québec or private companies) by integrating these installations into their development plans, taking into account all aspects of the projects.

When will there be a 13 km lake in Drummondville? When will Lake Megantic double in size, with the additional benefit of a certain amount of control over flooding in the Chaudière River? When will downtown Gatineau’s seven old, neglected power plants be replaced by a single one to energize the heart of the capital region? These are just a few examples of the hydroelectric potential still to be developed in the province of Quebec.

F. Pierre Gingras, industrial engineering specialist and associate researcher with the Montreal Economic Institute.

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