Hydroelectricity can play an important role in a future powered by renewable energy. Coupling hydroelectricity with intermittent sources such as wind power, for example, is an innovative way to ensure a significant and stable source of renewable electricity when needed.
Large hydro dams can be used as "batteries" that allow water to be stored when wind-generated electricity is at its peak, and to release this water to produce electricity when it is needed.
The state of Oregon couples wind power with hydroelectricity, providing a practical solution to manage the intermittent nature of renewable resources such as wind.
Quebec is also in the process of deploying thousands of MWs of wind that will be integrated with its vast hydro supply.
Large hydro projects can have significant environmental impacts, though, and all of these must be considered before a project proceeds. This means governments should account for all the the ecological services provided by forests, agricultural fields and other ecosystems that will be impacted by a hydro-electric development before approving a project.
The case for low-impact hydroelectricity
Large hydroelectric facilities have historically caused significant environmental damage including reservoir flooding, sedimentation, destruction of fish and wildlife habitats and greenhouse gas emissions.
Small-scale hydroelectric development requires comparatively little physical space while only occasionally causing more local ecosystem damage than natural flooding, drought and erosion rates present before plant construction.
In Ontario alone, the hydroelectric industry currently generates $1.7 billion in annual energy production, and supports 3,600 jobs.
Many new hydroelectric facilities can be located in parts of Canada facing economic hardship and chronic underemployment. Small, low-impact hydroelectric facilities in particular are well-suited for community development purposes because they create employment, increase economic activity and strengthen local energy security.
Siting of run-of-river hydroelectric projects
Run-of-river hydro has the potential to be an important part of the clean-energy mix that is needed to help Canada address the issue of climate change while also protecting against local environmental impacts. However, run-of-river hydro projects can result in unacceptable impacts if they are improperly located, poorly designed or built and operated in a manner that does not consider regional ecosystem costs and benefits and minimize impacts to the local environment. This debate is currently underway in British Columbia and is relevant in other provinces and territories considering small hydro development.
There is increasing concern that existing government policies, together with lax monitoring and enforcement, may result in run-of-river projects with unacceptably high environmental impacts. Provinces and territories need proactive management strategies to ensure that ecosystem integrity is maintained as we attempt to attain the benefits of clean energy. To achieve this balance, provinces—including British Columbia—require a coordinated ecosystem-based management strategy that includes protection of minimum ecosystem water flows and minimization of local impacts, and seeks to minimize wilderness fragmentation resulting from associated infrastructure, such as access roads and power lines.