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Harnessing water to meet Canada’s renewable energy goals

February 08, 2023

By Michael Morgenroth and Andrew Bayliss

Hydropower projects can lead towards a more sustainable and resilient grid. Here’s how.

In response to the Canadian government’s commitment to achieve a net zero emissions electricity supply by 2035 and a net zero economy by 2050, researchers are exploring opportunities to increase the capacity of waterpower in Canada.

Canada is well-supplied with this natural resource as the country is abundant with water. The land and water area of Canada comprises no less than 10 million square kilometers (The Canadian Encyclopedia), practically the same as all of Europe. Waterpower has been the backbone of the electric grid in Canada since the dawn of electricity because water is plentiful, the technology is efficient, the service life of stations is long, the cost is competitive, and the electricity produced is renewable and clean. In Canada, the potential for continued waterpower development is enormous.

In addition to refurbishing and upgrading existing hydropower plants, we also know that new hydropower plants—including pumped storage projects—play a key role in achieving Canada’s ambitious renewable energy goals.

Let’s explore just how far hydropower rehabilitations, upgrades, and new projects can go as Canada moves towards a clean energy future.

Isle-Maligne power plant in Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec. 

Conventional hydropower in Canada

With an abundance of rivers across Canada, hydropower plants can be found throughout the country. According to the International Hydropower Association, renewable energy accounts for two-thirds of Canada’s power generation, largely due to its significant water resources.

In fact, Canada is the world’s second biggest producer of hydropower, generating 380 Terawatt hours (TWh) which represents 59.3% of the country’s total electricity production. 6 out of every 10 Canadian homes and businesses are powered by hydropower, according to the government.

Hydropower has been a trusted workhorse of Canada’s electricity systems for well over a hundred years and has made great strides in contributing to a renewable energy mix. For this trend to continue however, much of the existing dam, power station, and transmission infrastructure needs to be addressed.

Portage-des-roches dam in Saguenay, Quebec.

Rehabilitations and upgrades

Over 50% of all dams in Canada were constructed prior to 1969 and are now over 50 years old. Much of this aging infrastructure involves extensive and complex repairs to large dams, reservoirs, and powerhouses that haven’t seen significant capital improvements in decades.

At the time they were built, these dams were designed to withstand extreme weather events. However, climate change data suggests that these events have already and will continue to intensify in certain geographies. This means that some dams will demand spill capacity reassessments and potential upgrades and refurbishments. Taking on a refurbishment project means understanding the risk process during the implementation phase and adhering to current codes and standards as well as risk-informed methods—which are ever evolving—to meet our needs. 

Hydropower has been a trusted workhorse of Canada’s electricity systems for well over a hundred years and has made great strides in contributing to a renewable energy mix.

Cases of aging dam infrastructure can be found across the country. For example, a 50-year-old concrete dam in Atlantic Canada was built with concrete that has started expanding and deteriorating steadily when in contact with water, which is substantially reducing the expected lifespan of the structures. A 70-year-old dam in the Yukon has been subjected to harsh climatic conditions, slope deformation, and undersized spillway capacity, which manifested itself during routine operations when slabs of the concrete chute detached under the spill.

Engineering challenges are tough and require a deep, systemic understanding of not just current dams and hydropower design standards, but the state of design and technology at the time of first construction of aging components that may have been installed decades ago. In the best-case scenarios, dam owners have the resources to proactively address the issues to avoid emergencies and implement long-term remediation projects. The risks associated are just too high to do nothing. 

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Mactaquac Generating Station in New Brunswick.

New hydropower and pumped storage plants

In addition to refurbishments and upgrades, Canada also has a lot of undeveloped hydropower potential—more than twice the current capacity. Of the 1157 large dams registered by ICOLD (International Commission on Large Dams) in Canada, 810 were built for the purpose of hydroelectric generation. So far, conventional hydropower has been able to balance the electric systems. But the process of balancing the electricity between times of surplus generation and excess demand is no easy feat. With more non-dispatchable renewables like wind and solar coming online to replace fossil fuels, grid operators are struggling to balance the supply of electricity with demand.

This has led many utilities and private developers to consider pumped storage hydropower. Pumped storage plants can store energy produced from non-dispatchable renewables and release renewable energy back into the power system when it is needed, most often during peak electricity demand.

Even though Canada hasn’t seen a new pumped storage facility built in over 70 years, most experts agree that this ongoing transition to non-dispatchable renewables will push Canada towards keeping the grid stable through development of the first pumped storage project of the 21st century.

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Canada is well-supplied with this natural resource as the country is abundant with water.

Leveraging hydropower for a more resilient grid

It's true that not all the available hydropower potential in Canada will be developed due to technical challenges, cost, and environmental trade-offs. But despite that, a significant amount will be developed. Why? Because Canada recognizes it needs clean and reliable hydropower for future growth.

Electricity demand in Canada will continue to grow over the coming decades due to population and economic growth, even with significant efforts to reduce consumption and integrate more efficient technologies. Hydropower is one of the best sources of electricity available from an environmental, technical, social, and economic perspective. Pumped storage hydropower will also be highly beneficial and increasingly important as Canada integrates more non-dispatchable renewable power onto the grid.

The ambitious net zero goals outlined in the government’s latest plans will require bold action from those of us in the industry. Long permitting cycles for waterpower projects and transmission require that electricity demands be predicted well in advance. With our focus on the future, we can accomplish these goals by keeping our existing dams and hydropower infrastructure in good repair while also investing in new projects.

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  • Michael Morgenroth

    Michael is a mechanical engineer with over three decades of experience, primarily with waterpower and wind projects, he works with our hydropower and dams team on projects all across Canada.

    Contact Michael
  • Andrew Bayliss

    A sector leader in Stantec’s Dam Engineering group, Andrew combines expertise in planning, analysis, and design with a passion for technical excellence and internationally-recognized standards of delivery.

    Contact Andrew
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