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Hydropower offers stability, storage for net-zero grids: report

Industry group Waterpower Canada calls for increase in hydroelectric generation, storage capacity

Gilbert Bennett, interim president of WaterPower Canada. (Courtesy WaterPower Canada)

A report from national hydropower industry group WaterPower Canada lays out its advantages, including reliability and the potential for energy storage, as the country aims for net-zero electrical grids by 2035.

Written by Toronto-based energy consultancy Power Advisory LLC, Hydropower's Value to a Net-Zero Electricity Grid argues hydropower potential must be increased as Canada sees rising electricity demand amid electrification and a pivot to cleaner sources of power.

To harness Canada’s abundant hydropower resources, more dams, generators, storage facilities and development should take place, the report states.

Gilbert Bennett, interim president of WaterPower Canada, told SustainableBiz in an interview, “It’s important for people to understand what the role of hydropower is in our electricity grid, how it contributes to reliability, why the attributes of hydropower are so important,” as the country replaces fossil fuel-fired power generation with non-emitting sources.

WaterPower Canada, based in Ottawa, has a nationwide membership base including utilities, equipment manufacturers and engineering firms like Hydro-Québec, Ontario Power Generation, Innergex Renewable Energy and EnerServ Inc.

Where Canada stands on hydropower

Hydropower is Canada’s largest source of electricity, the report found, accounting for approximately 60 per cent of domestic generation. The country maintains expertise in hydropower development, engineering and operations.

Canada’s installed hydropower capacity as of 2021 is 82,307 megawatts. Quebec was the top-producing province or territory at 40,853 megawatts, or 94 per cent of its installed electricity capacity.

The report also names B.C., Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba as provinces that generate most of their electricity from hydropower, with 90 per cent, 97 per cent and 96 per cent, respectively.

The value of hydropower for net-zero

With the federal government’s push to achieve net-zero grids across the country as a cornerstone of its 2050 net-zero plan, procuring clean sources of electricity will be critical.

Renewable energy such as wind and solar are popular and declining in cost, but face problems with intermittency and storage. Wind energy is dependent on wind speeds, solar power relies on the intensity of the sun and batteries must be able to provide their energy on a long-term basis.

Hydropower can bypass those problems, Bennett said, and can be relied upon to deliver energy in the amount required on demand.

Pumped storage facilities can hold water and release it like a battery when needed. Hydropower resources can respond quickly and flexibly to additional output demands faster than other power generation technologies, the report states.

The draft Clean Electricity Regulations document identifies hydropower as a clean energy source along with wind, solar and nuclear, Bennett noted.

The industry group is aware of the risk of a warming climate drying up sources of power for hydroelectricity. Bennett said some areas of Canada may see increased precipitation which increases cost-effectiveness and productivity. Other locations will have more variable precipitation like droughts or atmospheric rivers that will lead to deluges and floods. Adaptation is critical, according to Bennett.

“That question for the industry is really important: what’s the need for storage, what’s the need for flood handling and why changes need to be made to existing facilities to ensure they operate reliably and safely.”

Improving access to hydropower

To tap into Canada’s hydropower resources, the report states su

pporting infrastructure is necessary. Though certain regions may be too distant to justify building interregional transmission lines, the economic viability of such costly projects makes more sense when the potential for additional capacity and energy are considered.

Western Canadian provinces and Quebec can cooperate to share hydropower with their neighbours for decarbonization, the report states.

WaterPower Canada highlights major hydropower projects being built, such as The Atlantic Loop and TC Energy’s 1,000-megawatt pumped hydro storage Meaford Project in Ontario.As the time to make progress on net-zero ticks away, Bennett said the development timelines for hydropower projects can be cut following government commitments to streamline the regulatory process in the latest budget. Everyone has a role in advancing Indigenous consultation, he added, and the industry needs to ensure it can complete large-scale projects on time.

Policymakers can also develop a pan-Canadian blueprint for a shared hydropower strategy and invest in public education detailing how hydropower can help Canada reach its net-zero goals, the report suggests.

Hydropower's Value to a Net-Zero Electricity Grid is the first of a series of reports about the hydropower industry the association plans to publish over the summer and fall.

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