Hydro plan generates controversy

ALBANY RIVER, ONTARIO - In the current debate over Ontario's future choices for electricity, coal and nuclear are often demonized while hydroelectric power is portrayed as saintly.

After all, hydro is clean and green, with zero greenhouse gas emissions and a relatively low cost.

Not surprisingly then, the government's electricity planning agency – the Ontario Power Authority – included significant additions to the province's hydro capacity as part of its latest plan to keep the lights on in the province over the next 20 years.

The plan is the third attempt by the power authority to provide a road map for the province to wean itself off coal without increasing reliance on nuclear power. The two previous plans were found wanting by the government, especially in the areas of conservation and "renewable" energy (primarily hydro and wind).

So in an effort to be more environmentally sound, the power authority's new plan includes almost 3,000 more megawatts from hydroelectric power, which is about the equivalent of a nuclear plant.

But environmental soundness is in the eye of the beholder.

Back in the 1970s, for instance, major hydroelectric initiatives like the James Bay projects in Quebec were vehemently opposed by environmentalists on the grounds that the dams would flood vast plots of land and disrupt flora and fauna.

In 1972, the Sierra Club produced a book on the Quebec projects called The Plot to Drown the North Woods describing them as "a brutal assault on nature." Flash forward to today, when the Ontario Power Authority envisions new hydro dams on several northeastern Ontario rivers, including the Albany.

Located north of the 51st parallel, the Albany runs 980 kilometres through Precambrian shield in a series of falls and rapids from Lake St. Joseph to James Bay. The flooding that would result from a dam on the river would be even worse than on the Quebec side of James Bay as the vertical drop is not nearly as big.

Nevertheless, wouldn't environmentalists support such projects today, given that more hydroelectricity would enable the province to close the coal-fired power plants or opt for fewer nuclear reactors?

No, according to Keith Stewart of World Wildlife Fund Canada. He said the environmental groups have discussed this trade-off among themselves and decided they still have to oppose major new hydroelectric dams.

There is another problem with hydroelectric projects in northeastern Ontario: the land belongs to aboriginal peoples.

The Albany, for example, runs through the Eabametoong First Nation at Fort Hope and the Marten Falls First Nation at Ogoki.

The Star contacted Chief Sol Atlookan of the Eabametoong First Nation. He said it was the first he had heard of a proposal for a hydro dam on the Albany and expressed concern that it would show up in a government plan without prior consultation.

Brian Hay of the power authority said he had spoken to other representatives of First Nations in the Albany River area but conceded: "There's still a lot of consultation to be done."

Hay also described the Albany project as more of "a high-level concept" than a concrete proposal.

In other words, it has a lot of hurdles left to clear.

Energy Minister Dwight Duncan acknowledged this in an interview. "But we have to look at every available opportunity," he added.

Fair enough, but these new hydroelectric projects may prove to be more in the category of pipe dreams than opportunities.


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