Trailblazer: Rewriting HydroQuebec’s controversial past
A just transition to a clean energy economy in Canada cannot be successful without the inclusion of remote communities. In mid May, a promising step forward was taken with the signing of an agreement between an Inuit corporation and an independent power producer. Project Innavik will build a 7.5-megawatt dam to serve the community of Inukjuak, on the Inukjuak river in Quebec, to replace diesel as the source of power for 1,800 people.
There are 279 communities in Canada that are not connected to the North American power grid and are instead powered by microgrids. Most microgrids use diesel and “[b]ased on the best available data, remote communities in Canada collectively consume more than 90 million litres of diesel fuel every year for electricity generation. That’s equivalent to 36 Olympic-size swimming pools of diesel being transported, stored, and burned.” Diesel fuel also has an inherent risk of environmental catastrophe; in 2015 13,500 litres spilled on land near Inukjuak.
While remote communities in Canada currently rely on fossil fuels to generate power, there is an opportunity for a successful and cost-effective energy transition. And while the transition to a clean energy source for these communities should be celebrated, we cannot forget the ecological and social costs of hydropower and infrastructure in Quebec and across Canada. We can learn from past mistakes to create a just and clean energy future for everyone.
The James Bay project in northern Quebec is one of the largest hydroelectric systems in the world and a good example of the complicated history of hydropower. The project diverted four major rivers into one body of water that covers an area the size of New York state. The flooding of 11,000 square kilometres of boreal forest released mercury into the aquatic system and led to bioaccumulation and high mercury levels in local populations. The flooding from the creation of the project has also created local climactic changes. Due to the large amount of standing freshwater, the project has noticeably decreased the salinity of the seawater nearby, which has increased the freezing point of James Bay. This creates more ice annually and has cooled the surrounding air currents to create harsher winter conditions. Harsher winter conditions have in turn shifted the tree line southward. The project has also affected animal migration routes and heavily impacted animal populations. In one flooding event over 7,000 Caribou drowned. In addition to these environmental changes, the project threatened local communities to such an extent that the Grand Council of the Crees was formed and local Indigenous organizers fought for the first northern comprehensive land claim settlement in Canada, known as the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement.
Through Project Innavik, Hydro Quebec, Pituvik Land Holdings Corporation, and Innergex Renewable Energy will invest $125 million into a renewable energy project above the 53rd parallel that will service communities previously reliant on the diesel-powered micro-grid. This project will not only employ residents and bring in revenue to the community while lowering the cost of energy, it will also potentially pave the way for a new relationship with hydroelectricity in Canada.
Hydro-Quebec will also purchase excess energy produced by the dam which will give the Nunavik community a source of revenue. Project Innavik is still waiting for approval from Quebec’s energy board, but there is hope of also converting 13 other off-grid communities in Nunavik.
As renewable energy is increasingly introduced into the micro-grid, operations become more complicated due to capacity limitations for energy storage. Since renewable energy levels from sources such as wind and solar have significant fluctuations, it is difficult to fully transition off of a diesel-based system while the capacity for energy storage is still lacking. Investing in renewable energy sources while updating energy storage technology is the only effective and sustainable way to eliminate reliance on diesel fuelled microgrids. A reliable system is one reason why a transition to a grid powered by hydro is attractive to both communities and investors, but this reliability needs to account for the ecological and social impacts of hydroelectricity.