Nicolas Boisclair and Alexis de Gheldere photographed the river’s magnificence — its raging waters, its hurtling falls, its woodland caribou, black bears, moose, salmon and trout, its spectacular mountain vistas and rocky cliffs, and dense forested valleys — capturing the river’s last moments before the machines moved in. Their film, Chercher le courant, will be archived as a record of a lost world.
On May 13, 2009, about eight months after the paddlers completed their trip, Hydro-Quebec unleashed the bulldozers for what will become the biggest construction site in Canada.
Hydro-Quebec president Thierry Vandal and Premier Jean Charest were there with the local mayor to turn the first soil. They laughed and joked and delivered speeches about the 945 annual jobs the project would create and the 1,550 megawatts of energy it would produce, all for export to the United States. Flashing shiny shovels, they ceremonially turned the soil and the heavy machinery moved in.
By 2020, the river will be replaced by four new dams, seven dikes, giant spillways and canals and 279.2 square kilometres of reservoirs.
The projected cost including the power lines is $8 billion. But if history is any lesson, the cost will rise well beyond that. As a 2009 study by the Montreal Economic Institute shows, Hydro-Quebec’s projects come in on average about 26-per-cent over budget.
Lost in the politics of dam building are the rivers. From the Ontario border to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, only three major or mid-size rivers have not been harnessed for their electric power. Once Hydro-Quebec finishes damming the Romaine, it plans giant hydro dams for the neighbouring Petit Mecatina and Magpie Rivers.
After that everything dammable will have been dammed. Quebec will have reached the end of its hydro capacity having “transformed”, as Hydro-Quebec puts it, most of the major rivers in the province into “a modified environment” of reservoirs on one side of a dam and dried up river beds on the other.
Faced with this astonishing assault on nature, one question remains. Has hydro become an anachronism in a world where there are alternative energy solutions that do not destroy the environment.
While the industrialized world presses forward installing and perfecting clean energy systems, Hydro-Quebec persists in damming rivers. It pays scant attention to alternative energy. Why
“You try to find a logical explanation and you can’t,” said Real Reid, an engineer who worked for 21 years developing alternative energies for Hydro-Quebec before it abandoned the field. “The only way to explain it is inertia. They don’t want to change the way we do things.”
Filmmaker Boisclair said in an interview: “We build dams to give contracts to satisfy the appetite of dam builders who want to make money. If it costs a lot, it’s not ‘serious.’ Quebecers will pay with higher electricity rates. The dam builders will make money anyway. There are strong lobbies persuading the government to do these big dam projects every four years. They win voters in local ridings that keep the government in power.
Reid said energy efficiency and alternative energy programs create more employment that is longer lasting than a dam project but these jobs are dispersed and largely invisible to the public so there is no political advantage.
That politicians believe there are more votes in damming a river than developing clean energy is clear from the recent billion-dollar loan guarantee promises from the Conservative Party to help finance hydro in Newfoundland and Labrador.
So Quebecers pay among the lowest electricity rates in the industrialized world and remain among the highest electricity consumers — eating up twice as much per capita as Ontarians do. For this, rivers have to be sacrificed.
In addition is the lure of foreign sales. With the fifth highest debt-to-GDP in the industrialized world and the highest in Canada, Quebec remains dependent on hydro sales. Yet Hydro-Quebec’s dividend to the government has steadily declined to $1.8 billion in 2010, from $2.25 billion in 2008. This is one reason it’s 2009-2013 strategic plan calls for an aggressive program of large-scale hydro projects, of which giant projects such as Romaine River are cornerstones. The province is seeking more sales to the U.S. of what it claims is “clean energy.
But how “clean” is hydro? The destruction of the Romaine River and at least 20 tributaries is undeniable. In addition, peer-reviewed scientific studies show that reservoirs can be large emitters of greenhouse gases. These emissions, however, are not included in Quebec’s greenhouse gas inventory and are downplayed by both the utility and the government.
Premier Jean Charest frequently claims that hydro is free of greenhouse gas production. The reality is quite different.
Hydro reservoirs across Canada annually emit as much as one million tonnes of greenhouse gases. They come from the breakdown of biomass (dead trees and plants) left in the flooded area. Hydro-Quebec claims these emissions taper off after 10 years and are on average 20 times less than produced by the worst emitters such as coal-fired power plants.
Eric Duchemin of the Institut des sciences de l’environnement at the Universite du Quebec à Montreal, disagrees. He said his work and that of his colleagues proves that Hydro-Quebec’s reservoirs produce about twice as much as the utility admits. What’s more, he said, reservoirs continue to emit greenhouse gases for decades because they are the depositories for all the gaseous biomass in the reservoir watershed.
“(Hydro-Quebec) has the tendency to minimize the importance of the emissions from its reservoirs,” he said in an interview. “You transform the forest, the river, the valley into a huge immovable zone where you have enormous amounts of micro bacteria where a huge amount of methane is emitted that was not emitted before.”
Hydro-Quebec claims the emissions are equivalent to those of a natural lake. Duchemin said his research, which he did for Hydro-Quebec, shows the reservoir emissions are more than a lake produces, with the amount varying according to the depth and size of the reservoir. “And before the area was flooded there was no lake. It was river, forests.” So you didn’t have these net emissions. Instead you had a carbon sink.
Hydro-Quebec hired Duchemin and several colleagues about 10 years ago to study greenhouse gas emissions in their reservoirs. He said Hydro-Quebec refused to publish his data when it showed a lot more greenhouse gases than the utility was prepared to admit to. In 2006, Duchemin and his colleagues went ahead and published their own paper in the Journal on Lakes and Reservoirs.
He said Hydro-Quebec wants to keep the numbers low so it can claim credits that can be sold through an international carbon credit trading system for millions of dollars. “It is so political for Hydro-Quebec, which wants to have the greenhouse gas credits, as does the government, for not building fossil fuel plants,” he said.
Duchemin is not the only scientist to claim that Hydro-Quebec is not always open to public scrutiny, even though it is owned by Quebecers.
Dr. Gilles Theriault, an epidemiologist at McGill University’s occupational health department, was hired by Hydro-Quebec in the 1980s to study the possibility that low-frequency electromagnetic fields emitted by high-voltage power lines can cause leukemia or brain cancer.
He studied about 220,000 linemen working for Ontario Hydro, Hydro-Quebec and Electricite de France in the 1970s and 1980s. The evidence for leukemia was not conclusive, he said. But he discovered a high incidence of lung cancer that could not be explained by smoking.
Theriault said Hydro-Quebec was opposed to him publishing a paper on this surprise finding because it was outside the original hypothesis. He published it in 1994 in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The paper stated that “there was a clear association between cumulative exposure to (pulsed electromagnetic fields) and cancer” and added that “exposures were considerably higher in Quebec than in France.
Theriault said he wanted to conduct a follow-up study to find the reason behind this link to cancer, but Hydro-Quebec refused to finance the study.
“You can understand for a company like an electricity producing company, they have to deal with the public and so it is a very sensitive issue for them,” he said. “You want to avoid creating fear in the public. . But you also want to know what the truth is.
Boisclair said he had hoped to interview Hydro-Quebec workers studying the geology, surveying the river and gathering data on soil, fish and the ecosystems as he journeyed down the river. But the utility refused to allow its workers to speak to the filmmakers on or off camera. Hydro-Quebec managers also refused to take part in the film. So Quebecers were denied a full and open discussion on the project in this film.
Hydro-Quebec often appears to operate without accountability. In the film, Jacques Parizeau says that when he was premier he asked Hydro-Quebec to examine whether it is cheaper to build more dams or reduce electricity demand. He says Hydro-Quebec never did the study. But 15 years later the answer is clear, he says. “Saving electricity is cheaper than producing it.”
Daniel Green, director of la Societe pour vaincre la pollution, says that a full and open debate on Quebec’s energy future has never occurred. Instead, Hydro-Quebec and the government simply work out a strategic plan, which is essentially imposed on the province. In this case it’s a plan to destroy Quebec’s last remaining rivers.
There are, however, any number of clean alternatives to big hydro projects. Experts say Quebec could easily get the 1,550 megawatts that it wants out of the Romaine River from energy efficiency programs or from alternative energy systems like wind, solar, biomass and geothermal.
These experts note that Quebec could save three times the amount of energy that will be produced by the Romaine project just by insulating homes and installing proper windows that meet the latest standards. The cost of this would also be three times cheaper than building the Romaine River dams.
While the government promised in 2006 to bring Quebec’s building code up to Novoclimat norms set by the province’s L’agence efficacite energetique, it hasn’t done it. Quebec buildings are still constructed under an old 1996 code. Homeowners may get homes that are about five-per-cent cheaper to build, but they pay for it in the long run with higher energy costs, Boisclair said.
“There is no strong lobby to push energy efficiency,” he said.
Reid worked for Hydro-Quebec on wind energy after the fuel crisis of the 1970s. He said Quebec has some of the best wind corridors in the world. They are ideally located in the James Bay area where Hydro-Quebec already has power lines and reservoirs.
As with any energy system, Reid said, the key is sufficient storage capacity. Quebec’s 30,000 square kilometres of reservoirs are ideal. Peak energy months in Quebec are December through February when the reservoirs become seriously depleted. Only the spring snow melt refills them. This also happens to be the time when winds are strongest and most consistent. Combining wind energy with hydro would greatly reduce the depletion rate of the reservoirs, making the existing power stations more energy efficient.
But Hydro-Quebec has decided not to get directly involved in wind energy claiming it lacks the expertise, which is odd coming from a utility that studied wind energy for more than 20 years. Instead, it is contracting out a planned 4,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2015 to private companies, most of which are from outside Quebec. Of the 23 wind projects announced so far, five are controlled by Electricite de France, one is from the U.S. and one from Spain and eight from Calgary and Toronto.
These companies basically prowl the globe searching for rich supply contracts, grants and loan guarantees from governments such as Quebec. They also hope that these clean energy projects will earn them carbon credits that can be sold for substantial profits on the international carbon market.
A wind company’s chief asset is its supply contract with Hydro-Quebec as well as permission from landowners to build on their property. Once this is obtained, the contracts are often sold off to other companies for a quick profit.
The 22 projects approved for Quebec began in the Gaspe and have now spread into the Beauce, the Eastern Townships and the South Shore where many residents are opposed to them. They fear the noise of the giant blades and consider the huge turbines a blight on the landscape. They should, of course, check out what is happening to the Romaine River, but that’s too far away.
The building of wind farms in the south is not only giving wind energy a bad name but also is bad business, Riel said. “In the north, you have access to nine metres per second (wind speed) compared to six in the Monteregie and your net production increases with the square of wind speed. So if you go from six to nine metres per second, you have twice the production.
He said we have the technology to build wind turbines in the deep cold of the James Bay region. “If you gave the Cree the alternative of building a dam or building a wind farm, I’m sure they would chose wind,” he said.
Boisclair points out that the $8 billion Quebec is spending to dam the Romaine would go a long way to building a modern, clean energy economy that would not destroy the province’s last remaining rivers.
But Hydro-Quebec has never presented Quebecers with that choice. Too often the choice is posed only in the utility’s terms, Reid said. It’s either dam a river or suffer energy shortages.
He said the real choice should be framed within a much broader vision that spans the full breadth of modern alternative energy systems, where the destruction of an entire river would be unthinkable.