The hydropower-from-Quebec fantasy resurfaces in Ontario gas-industry propaganda

“Just because a river is French Canadian and Catholic, it’s not absolutely necessary to put a dam on it.” This quote, from former Quiet Revolutionary (later Quebec premier) Jacques Parizeau, came during the storm of debate over the first James Bay hydroelectric project. This megaproject centred on the La Grande river on the east coast of James Bay, and involved submerging over 11,000 square kilometers of land. It cost, according to Sean McCutcheon in Electric Rivers, between $13 billion and $20 billion, at least double the original estimate (sound familiar, Ontario?), and gave Quebec over 7,700 megawatts of hydroelectric generating capacity. Subsequent development on the La Grande has given Quebec more than 17,000 megawatts of installed capacity, at the cost of submerging a land area the size of Belgium—30,230 square kilometers.

An early advocate of nuclear power in Quebec, Jacques Parizeau made good on that advocacy with the construction of Quebec’s only nuclear reactor, the CANDU 6 known as Gentilly 2.

An early advocate of nuclear power in Quebec, Jacques Parizeau made good on that advocacy during his stint as Quebec finance minister with the construction of Quebec’s only nuclear reactor, the CANDU 6 known as Gentilly 2. The LSE-educated Parizeau was known at the time as Canada’s only professional finance minister. He knew what he was talking about.

Parizeau at the time of the above quote was in the Parti Québécois, a separatist opposition party. It opposed James Bay on economic and environmental grounds.

Parizeau favoured nuclear power, which like hydropower makes use of one of nature’s four fundamental physical forces (the strong nuclear force; hydropower uses gravity). Unlike hydropower though, nuclear involves land use that is, by comparison, barely noticeable. For example, Ontario’s 18 nuclear reactors occupy a total of 23.4 square kilometers (Darlington occupies 480 hectares, or 4.8 square km; Bruce occupies 9.3 square km; and Pickering, also 9.3.) Their total installed capacity is 12,530 megawatts. So the Ontario nuclear land-use footprint works out to 0.186 hectares—about a fifth of an average size city block—per installed megawatt.

Some advocates of the Quebec-hydropower-to-Ontario fantasy are self-styled environmentalists who haven’t done their homework and crunched the easy numbers like I have done above. Because of an unexamined and comically off-base anti-nukery, they think that the Darlington nuclear station should be shut down and that its 25 billion annual kilowatt-hours of electrical energy output should come instead from the Belgium-sized man-made lake in northern Quebec.

Quebec’s hydropower land use footprint is 177.8 hectares per megawatt (30,230 km2 is 3,023,000 hectares; divide that by 17,000 megawatts).

For every patch of land Ontario nuclear power requires, Quebec hydropower needs 952 times that. This, among other reasons, is why Parizeau favoured nuclear power.

I mention this because, every now and again, somebody floats the cockamamie idea that Ontario should start importing clean hydropower from Quebec. Some advocates of this fantasy are self-styled environmentalists who haven’t done their homework and crunched the easy numbers like I have done above. Because of an unexamined and comically off-base anti-nukery, they think that the Darlington nucelar station should be shut down and that its 25 billion annual kilowatt-hours of electrical energy output should come instead from the Belgium-sized man-made lake in northern Quebec.

Nor do they appear to have considered what it would take, engineering-wise, for the Quebec electric utility, Hydro Quebec, to wheel 25 billion annual kWh of energy into Ontario from that lake. Quebec already wheels huge amounts of that energy out-of-province: to the U.S. northeast. American customers are served with Quebec hydropower on long term contracts; that was why Quebec built the transmission lines to the U.S. in the first place. What about those customers?

None of the Ontario advocates of Quebec hydropower appears to have ever taken the matter up with… Hydro Quebec. I’m sure the utility might have interesting things to say.

No serious person believes Ontario will ever import such massive amounts of electric power from Quebec. So why the sudden spate of media articles taking it up?

Well, it’s all about money. Specifically, the money that can be made by the fossil fuel industry if Darlington, which is slated for refurbishment beginning in less than a year, is not refurbished.

The main cheerleader for Quebec-hydropower-to-Ontario is the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, a gas-industry lobby group. The OCAA’s aim is to replace Ontario zero-carbon nuclear plants with carbon-heavy gas-fired plants. Given that the current concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the global atmosphere is just about 400 parts per million (see Item A1, above), you’d wonder why an organization allegedly advocating for clean air would want to add to those 400 ppm.

The OCAA knows full well that the Quebec-hydropower-to-Ontario fantasy is just that—a fantasy. The OCAA is not actually advocating for Quebec hydropower to Ontario. What it really wants is business for its gas-industry clients. And those clients will get plenty of business if Darlington does not get refurbished. So it is striving mightily, with the cooperation of a mainstream media that today finds ad revenue increasingly scarce and gas-industry ad revenue increasingly valuable, to get us Ontarians to actually believe this Quebec-hydropower-to-Ontario nonsense. That way, they hope, we will be more amenable to letting Darlington, an enormously valuable clean-energy centre—and revenue generator for the people of this province—go idle. Yesterday the OCAA wanted us to believe that windmills and solar panels could do it. Today it’s Quebec hydropower. Tomorrow, who knows. Maybe a perpetual motion machine.

Jacques Parizeau got to see an example of nuclear’s vastly superior land-use footprint, right in his own province, and under his watch as PQ finance minister. During that tenure, Hydro Quebec built and commissioned Gentilly 2, a 635-MW CANDU 6 reactor. It was, until its premature shut-down in late 2012 (by another PQ government, sans Parizeau), Hydro Quebec’s biggest single generator.

The premature shutdown of G2 was undertaken by, as I said, a Parizeau-less PQ government. Parizeau disagreed with much of that government’s policies. I wonder if he disagreed with the G2 decision also.

16 comments for “The hydropower-from-Quebec fantasy resurfaces in Ontario gas-industry propaganda

  1. Jaro
    July 31, 2014 at 15:04

    A colleague once suggested a somewhat more bi-lateral arrangement with Quebec — in which Ontario’s nuclear fleet would, in essence, use Quebec’s hydro reservoirs for energy storage, to be used for peaking capacity.
    Sounds like a great idea, but what sort of business deal would it take for both sides to sign up for it ?

    • August 1, 2014 at 08:34

      so the two provinces combined could run on reliable 100 percent CO2-free energy at any hour of the day — and export it as well. I like it. But yes, what sort of business deal would it take? An unprecedented one.

      Worth looking into.

  2. James Greenidge
    August 1, 2014 at 13:13

    One wonders why aren’t naturalists and environmentalists and farmers more strident about new hydro projects. Isn’t China’s Gorges project a living example enough? For me, this zeal for hydro and solar and wind _just_ (really!) to appease the FEAR of nuclear isn’t just ignorance but almost childish.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  3. Mike Greaves
    August 2, 2014 at 15:31

    OK this might be a better representation, though I can’t read the Chinese gov report to confirm it:
    “According to the Hydrology Department of Henan Province, in the province, approximately 26,000 people died[14] from flooding and another 145,000 died during subsequent epidemics and famine. In addition, about 5,960,000 buildings collapsed, and 11 million residents were affected. Unofficial estimates of the number of people killed by the disaster have run as high as 230,000 people.”

  4. R. Budd
    August 10, 2014 at 11:44

    I recall years ago Canadiian researches with the Environmental Lakes project studied life cycle GHG emissions associated with hydro electric projects.
    Bottom line was that the submerged biomass that occured with the flooding of large catchment areas produced methane in an amount that meant emissions impact/kwh weren’t far off coal burning.
    Then you have the lost conversion of Co2 to biomass etc from removed forest, ecological function, etc..
    The OCAA calling the daming of vast watersheds along with the required equally vast tranmission corridors ‘clean vs nuclear” is either disingenuous or simply retarded.

  5. Maury Markowitz
    August 26, 2014 at 08:08

    “Sean McCutcheon in Electric Rivers, between $13 billion and $20 billion, at least double the original estimate (sound familiar, Ontario?), and gave Quebec over 7,700 megawatts of hydroelectric generating capacity”

    Interesting. So that’s:

    20/7.7 = $2.60/Watt (worst-case scenario)

    whereas Darlington B:

    26/3.2 = $8.13/Watt (26B was considered a low-ball estimate)

    Draw your own conclusions.

    • August 31, 2014 at 22:59

      My conclusion is that the statement is ambiguous.  The Darlington B plant could operate continuously for a decade or more, since CANDUs are refuelled on-line; call it 90% capacity factor.  How much could the Quebec hydro project generate on average (how much water did it receive), vs. the nameplate (peak) capacity?  THAT little detail is unstated in your quote, and you don’t link to any data whatsoever.

  6. Maury Markowitz
    September 2, 2014 at 07:41

    > My conclusion is that the statement is ambiguous

    Really.

    > The Darlington B plant could operate continuously for a decade or more

    Whereas Quebec’s dams have already been operating for three decades or more, and will do so for any timeline you wish to examine.

    > How much could the Quebec hydro project generate on average

    Oh, NOW you want to examine CF? And you can’t be bothered to look it up in Google? Well ok, I *will* do your homework for you.

    HQ’s fleet averages 65% CF:

    http://www.hydroquebec.com/learning/eolienne/reperes-comprendre-complementarite.html

    That’s demand throttled BTW, not water limited (there’s about 6 months of water stored right now). That means that the adjusted CAPEX would be:

    $2.60/Watt / (.65) = $4 for HQ
    $8.13/Watt / (.90) = $9 for Darlington B

    You were saying?

    • September 3, 2014 at 00:19

      Whereas Quebec’s dams have already been operating for three decades or more

      At what CF, and what potential for expansion?

      HQ has 35.364 GW of installed (nameplate) capacity and 175 TWH of energy capacity in its reservoirs.  That’s roughly equal to HQ’s 2013 hydro generation of 177,858 GWh.

      177858 GWh / 8760 hours = 20.3 GW, a capacity factor of 57.4%.  Absent the need for service off-line, a CANDU can operate at 100% CF for literally years at a time.

      The creation of the HQ system required expropriating the First Nations (which is still the matter of on-going legal action, IIUC).  CANDUs can be built at will.

      HQ’s fleet averages 65% CF

      You overstate HQs CF by more than 10%.  You also disregard the potential for expansion, which is strictly limited by HQ’s rainfall.  On top of that, what you link to is a compendium page, and has no data that might actually support your claim.

      the adjusted CAPEX would be:
      $2.60/Watt / (.65) = $4 for HQ
      $8.13/Watt / (.90) = $9 for Darlington B

      Darlington can be duplicated at will, and probably for much lower unit cost in volume.  HQ’s dams probably cannot be expanded at all.  You compare apples and watermelons, and watermelon is what you are:  green on the outside, red on the inside.

      • September 3, 2014 at 06:39

        The creation of the HQ system required expropriating the First Nations (which is still the matter of on-going legal action, IIUC)

        There’s about the entire reason for the low hydro prices. There are a lot of Quebec Cree who can’t ever go home because home is now under water. Build that system today from scratch, and let’s see what the price is.

      • Maury Markowitz
        September 5, 2014 at 06:36

        You took the time to google numbers, but didn’t follow through to the conclusion. Funny, that. Fine, let’s use your numbers:

        $2.60/Watt / (.57) = $4.56 for HQ
        $8.13/Watt / (1.0) = $8.13 for Darlington B

        You were saying?

        • September 8, 2014 at 15:42

          You took the time to google numbers, but didn’t follow through to the conclusion.

          Your “conclusion” omits the externalized costs of HQ, plus future costs like the compensation that will have to be paid to the Cree.  In any event it cannot be duplicated; the geography and the legal regime that allowed construction exist nowhere other than at that place and time.

          Leave things to the engineers and they’ll make you as many Darlingtons as you like, and probably find ways to make them cheaper in volume.

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