Look around. What are the primary sources of renewable energy around you? For most Canadians, it’s wind and solar power that visibly dominate the clean energy landscape.
Truth is, while solar and wind are growing in their contribution to our electricity each year, they’re far from the largest source of renewable energy in Canada. The biggest contributor is often hidden in remote corners of the land, resting on the backs of our mighty rivers.
Hydroelectricity in Canada
Hydroelectricity is the single largest source of electricity in Canada, renewable or not. It comprises about 60% of our power generation, with over 78,000 megawatts of installed capacity. There are hydroelectric dams in every province and territory except Nunavut and Prince Edward Island, from coast to coast to coast.
This source of energy is so prominent in Canada that the word ‘hydro’ is often used as a synonym for ‘electricity’. We often don’t even realize this until we’re talking energy with a foreigner.
History of Hydroelectricity
In addition to being the largest renewable energy source, hydroelectricity is also one of the oldest in Canada. The first hydropower station was built in 1881 in Chaudieres Falls, located in the Ottawa-Gatineau area. The facility powered street lights and local mills in town. The oldest facility in Southern Ontario in DeCew Falls is still in operation today.
People had been using hydro power for long before it came to Canada. The ancient Greeks used water wheels to grind wheat into flour over 2,000 years ago. However, it wasn’t until 1881 that a water turbine was first used to produce electricity.
Is Hydro Power Clean Energy?
While hydro power is definitely a renewable energy source, there is some debate as to whether it is truly ‘clean’ and environmentally-friendly.
Hydroelectic power stations convert the natural flow of water into electricity without depleting or contaminating it. It’s infinitely renewable, and the facilities last a very long time (evidenced by the fact that the DeCew Falls station has been in operation since 1898!) However, the facilities have an extensive construction phase that affects the local environment by altering the habitats of aquatic life and flooding certain lands.
Regardless, hydroelectricity is currently an critical part of the renewable energy landscape in Canada. It will be a long time before other sources, like solar power, wind power, and tidal power, are competitive with the efficency and output of hydro power.
Hydro power will likely continue to play a key role in meeting Canada’s growing electricity needs. Currently, we use less than half of the total potential power generation from hydro, and our capacity could more than double to 160,000MW in the future.