While the battle rages to stop Canada from exporting dirty tar-sands oil, another, far cleaner energy flows into the United States from our northern neighbor: hydropower. Although dams have received their share of criticism for altering hydrology and ecosystems, impeding fish, and, at times, displacing humans, Canada’s new dams are increasingly environmentally friendly. Besides, we all consume electricity, and dams must always be compared to the options available; when those alternatives are coal, natural gas, or nuclear, dams are usually the better choice.
Increasing Canadian hydropower exports to the United States was the topic of a recent forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Although it is under-reported, hydropower from Canada already provides electricity for some 3.5 million homes in the United States. And hydro is by far the most extensive source of renewable energy in the country (if one does not count nuclear), responsible for some 8% of energy in the United States in 2011 (according to the United States Energy Information Administration), with all other renewables providing under 4% (although rising fast). In Canada, dams are much more extensive, providing a whopping 60% of electricity, making Canada one of the lowest carbon-emitting countries on the planet. And certain American states depend heavily on Canadian hydropower. For example, approximately 11% of Minnesota power comes from Manitoba’s dams, according to Greg Selinger, Premier of Manitoba (a province that relies on hydro for a massive 98% of its electricity). New York State and New England also rely on Canadian hydro, in this case from Québec. And Canada would like to greatly boost its hydropower exports to the United States, while spending some $55 to $70 billion on new installed capacity (Braun, 2011). As Gary Doer, Canadian Ambassador to the United States, pointed out, hydropower will help the United States meet the objective, advanced by Obama at the 2011 Copenhagen Conference, of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions 17% by 2020 compared to 1995 levels. “We are each other’s best friend when it comes to an energy strategy,” exclaimed Selinger.
One key obstacle to importing Canadian hydropower is that many state-level climate plans do not consider it to be “renewable.” In addition, proposed national clean energy legislation does not count Canadian hydropower toward its renewable target. This is contrary to common sense, as clearly hydro provides the basic requirement of renewable energy, to renew itself indefinitely while emitting close to zero greenhouse gases. As Doer said, “If it walks like duck and talks like duck, it’s a duck”; hydropower is clearly renewable. What upsets environmentalists, however, are the other ecological aspects of dams. International Rivers, for instance, explains that large dams create “direct impacts to the biological, chemical and physical properties of rivers and riparian (or ‘stream-side’) environments,” blocking fish migration and trapping sediment, among other impacts. However, Canada’s dams are being built to mitigate such problems. Selinger explained that Canada addresses environmental issues, for instance using dams that reduce flooding and by providing fish ladders and hatcheries to minimize harm to fish (although there is evidence that fish ladders don’t work, or work poorly- Brown et al. 2013). In addition, Canada works in close conjunction with First Nations affected by dam construction to ensure environmental protection and help the local economy (by contrast with First Nation opposition to tar-sands oil). Still, every dam is going to have some impact, and building more dams does mean greater ecological harm.
The real question, however, is if we do not use dams, what is going to replace them? Best is conservation, to simply reduce energy usage, followed by such renewable sources as solar and wind. Realistically, that is not going to solve our energy needs, and dams are arguably better than nuclear and natural gas and certainly an improvement over coal. Of course, if one’s sole objective is avoiding greenhouse gases, dams are hard to question; add in other environmental factors, that is, stop making an apples-to-apples comparison, and the question gets trickier. Still, I would argue that greenhouse-gas emissions are the number one planetary threat right now. Given this, we need to build more dams, albeit with maximum environmental care.
Dams should only be built, however, if they do not interfere with other renewables. If more dams are built, does that mean less wind and solar power? Stephen Molodetz, Vice President at Hydro-Québec-U.S., answered with an emphatic “no,” suggesting a need to “avoid the either/or mentality...the notion that one renewable technology is going to crowd out another.” He worried that “everybody in the wind and solar market is so concerned with getting their piece of the pie that they’re afraid to give one inch to allow hydropower into the market.” Rather, to achieve renewable and clean energy goals, we need “an all-in approach.” Indeed, hydro is complementary to other renewable sources. In contrast to solar and wind, which suffer from intermittency, hydro provides baseline power, reliable for 24 hours a day, under normal operating conditions (geothermal is the only other renewable source to do so). And hydro can even be used to store energy generated through other means. Minnesota can therefore “look west for wind,” explained David McMillan, Executive Vice President of Minnesota Power. High quality North Dakota wind can complement hydro from Manitoba, which can even store excess wind power. Wind can be used to pump water to Canada, which effectively becomes a battery storing the energy, to be released in the form of hydropower when needed.
Still, the astute (and even not-very-astute) reader will have noticed that the sources I have cited have a direct economic interest in hydropower. Questions remain as to whether adding hydropower to the list of renewables allowed in state-level climate plans would mean less of other, perhaps preferable, renewable sources. To forestall this, Richard Caperton of the Center for American Progress, suggests we do allow hydro, but along with this “up the target” of mandated renewable energy in the portfolio, for instance from 20 to 25% at the federal level. In any case, it’s hard to question that hydropower is necessary to meet greenhouse-gas targets; it just needs to be provided with minimal environmental damage and without squeezing other renewables.
Hydropower will do little good, however, without additional transmission to get it where it is needed. A new transmission line, for instance, is necessary to complete the Manitoba-Minnesota deal. “We’re bringing a lot of parts of the puzzle together here,” said McMillian, “grid reliability, operational creativity, and excellent environmental outcomes while still being able to meet” price needs. Indeed, unless a miracle breakthrough occurs in battery storage, to expand renewables we will have to continue extending the grid to dispatch the energy where it’s needed, a problem that extends to solar, wind, and geothermal. For instance, a planned transmission line off the Atlantic coast would connect wind power from an array of offshore batteries—if the wind is dead in one, in others it will be active (Goffman, 2011). Similarly, we can use solar arrays and geothermal in the south and west, wind farms in the Midwest, and hydrothermal from Canada. With an improved grid, and employment of a variety of renewable energy sources depending on where they are available, and often in complementary fashion, we can fill in the entire country, satisfying our energy needs. (Similarly, Europe can, eventually, import wind from the North Atlantic and solar from giant arrays in North Africa.) There will, of course, be an environmental cost in constructing these transmission grids, as well as much local resistance. Yet the consequences will be far greater if we do nothing and continue to rely on fossil fuels. It is always a question of finding the least harmful option. And Canadian hydropower is an important piece of the puzzle.
Ethan Goffman is Associate Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. His publications have appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Grist, and elsewhere. He is the author of Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature(State University of New York Press, 2000) and coeditor of The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond (Purdue University Press, 2009) and Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010). Ethan is a member of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter of the Sierra Club.