Forget The Tar Sands: How Canadian Hydropower Can Help America

By Mari Hernandez

Our neighbor to the north has an energy source that our nation has yet to fully utilize — and it’s not tar sands.

Canadian hydropower has contributed to America’s clean energy economy, and has the potential to provide our nation with more clean energy. The question is: how can Canada and the United States strengthen this trade relationship?

An event Monday titled, Power Partnerships: How Canada-U.S. Hydroelectric Partnerships Reinforce America’s Clean Energy Economy, held at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C., brought together representatives from public utilities, think tanks, and government officials to answer that question.

Canadian hydropower has been supplying baseload power to the U.S. electric grid for over 40 years. In 2010, the U.S. imported 43.8 terawatt-hours of electricity from Canada, of which about 80 percent is from hydropower. Though Canadian electricity imports make up just one percent of total U.S. annual electricity generation, hydropower imports make up about 10 percent of all U.S. renewable electricity consumption.

The event speakers discussed the barriers that currently prevent Canadian hydropower imports from becoming an even bigger part of the U.S. energy mix– including transmission capacity, low natural gas prices, the threat to domestic jobs, competition from other renewables, environmental concerns, and regulatory barriers. Overcoming some of these challenges won’t be easy, but the case for moving forward is clear: greater energy security, affordable power prices, and reliable baseload power which can help to integrate intermittent renewable energy sources.

The event panelists included Canadian Ambassador to the United States Gary Doer, Premier of Manitoba Greg Selinger, Commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Tony Clark, Minnesota Power Executive Vice President David McMillan, Hydro-Quebec-US Vice President Stephen Molodetz, and Richard Caperton, Director for Clean Energy Investment at the Center for American Progress — all of whom discussed their take on the benefits of imported hydropower from Canada, and offered ways to facilitate greater cross-border clean energy trade.

On building new hydropower projects and transmission lines, Molodetz put forward an option for more positive and productive stakeholder involvement. He said there is a need for a “regional venue” to talk about the benefits of any new projects, since there tends to be so much focus on transmission siting and the negative aspects of that. He also cautioned against an “either/or” mentality, noting that hydro imports are part of a clean energy strategy and shouldn’t be seen as something that would necessarily crowd out other renewables.

Another important point that was mentioned several times was the fact that most states’ renewable energy portfolio standards (RPSs) do not include imported hydropower as an eligible resource. This is partly because some states would too easily meet their RPS target, rather than encouraging the development of other renewable energy sources. However, there are opportunities for states to encourage the growth of all renewables, including imported hydropower.

Caperton stated that if Canadian hydro imports were counted in states’ RPSs, the renewable targets must be increased in order to displace dirty energy sources rather than wind or solar. These increased targets would put our nation on a path to utilize more clean energy and further reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Although the Keystone XL decision has the potential to define President Obama’s climate legacy, there are cleaner energy sources that we can import from our northern neighbors that could lead us to a lower carbon future. If we can adequately address the current barriers to importing more hydro and ensure that it’s displacing coal, Canadian hydropower could become an even greater part of the United States clean energy economy and strengthen the relationship between the two nations.

Mari Hernandez is a Research Associate in Energy Policy for the Center for American Progress.

26 Responses to Forget The Tar Sands: How Canadian Hydropower Can Help America

  1. Anne van der Bom says:

    Hydropower is advertised in the article as ‘baseload’.

    Hydropower is much better than that: it is an on demand source that can quickly and efficiently ramp up and down. It can be used very effectively to compensate for the variability in other sources of renewable energy. It’s value therefore far exceed the 1% of annual US electricity consumption.

  2. “Ensuring” that Canadian hydropower displaces coal is the hard part. With the present free market structure, it would simply compete for its place at the growth table. It would almost certainly be additive.

    Also, location matters. If the hydro is remote from any coal generation, the displacement can’t physically occur. Even if the ecologically intrusive transmission lines were built, there are still power losses over those distances.

    Within Quebec and Ontario, the hydro/coal displacement strategy is underway and working. But scaling up to include the US isn’t likely to displace US coal unless we have one of two things: an explicit government policy of winding down coal, as Ontario has, or a carbon price.

  3. Bart Flaster says:

    Sounds like very generalized talk that won’t produce change.

    It would be better if hydro was included in RPS with raise in the standard. This would advance renewables stature by including in the conversation the biggest source renewable energy we currently have. The positive buzz around hydro would improve renewable public image overall.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Hydro reduces GHG’s, but less than people think, and it’s not green. Thermal pollution and blocked salmon runs are serious issues.

  5. Paul Klinkman says:

    That’s the point. Hydropower is often storable power.

    Manitoba Hydro signed a 100 megawatt contract with Allete, a Minnesota electric utility, to make up 100 megawatts only when the wind isn’t blowing in the wind fields of South Dakota. Manitoba Hydro deliberately builds more turbines for the job. At other times, the water builds behind Manitoba Hydro’s dams. Europe has figured this out too and often swaps off solar/wind with hydro.

    Now we need to see ten more of these contracts. Canada has the best hydropower, but we also have some reasonable impoundments in the U.S.

    Worst case, we pump water uphill and then let it down later. There’s a 30% energy penalty for storing power this way, but it stores huge amounts of energy for on-demand use. For one example of about 50 worldwide, Storm King mountain outside of New York City has a hydropumping unit online. They save up nighttime Niagara Falls power for daytime use in NYC.

  6. Solar Jim says:

    Foreign dependent, big transmission, icing prone grid exposed, money exporting, concrete profligate, local culture and ecology displacing, damming of rivers would seem to be one of the key non-solutions to sustainable energy policy planning in pursuit of a just cleantech economy.

  7. Mark Bigland-Pritchard says:

    Big hydro causes its own problems. By flooding vegetation it results in methane emissions. Changes to river system flowrates result in ecological impacts. Reservoirs increase the bioavailability of mercury. And in Manitoba, where Lake Winnipeg is used as effectively a large store of potential energy behind the turbine sets, management of water levels for energy purposes is sometimes in conflict with what is needed to avoid increased risk of flooding. First Nations along the lakeside are particularly vulnerable to water level change – and, while Manitoba Power has guidelines to minimise damage, it is not always able to prevent it.
    Hydro is going to have to be part of the mix – for us in Canada as well as for you in the US – because we are going to need to balance wind and solar. But it must be kept within naturally-derived limits. I am not convinced that the commercially-driven initiatives of the Manitoba, Quebec, BC and Newfoundland&Labrador governments have those natural limits in mind.

  8. As a Manitoban, I think Hydro can play a part of providing clean energy to the US. However, Hydro is also effected by changing climate. Don’t forget, if there is more frequent heavier short term rain falls that can provide some benefit. However, if there is long prolonged drought that limits what hydro power can do, and thus would dry out Manitoba Hydro’s coffers.

  9. Paul Klinkman says:

    With the new HVDC lines, location doesn’t matter as much. They’re good for extremely long distance power transmission.

    You’ve confused the new HVDC lines with the old HVAC leukemia-linked “killer-watt” lines. Those lines are bad news, and almost all of our current high-voltage lines are the old HVAC.

  10. Larry Gilman says:

    There is no such thing as a free lunch. Big hydro has major environmental impacts, including greenhouse emissions (which Canada has been underreporting). See the easy-optimism-withering reports from Global Forest Watch Canada, 2012:


    Less impact from hydro than tar sands? I don’t doubt it. But even “much less bad” does not equal “good” when we have the third alternative of ramping up neither of these destructive energy sources, by seriously harvesting the bounty of end-use efficiency:

  11. Larry Gilman says:

    Well said. Big hydro alters landscapes, and not for the better, on a see-it-from-orbit-with-the-naked-eye scale. The less of it we can get along with, the better — though it is, and will continue to be, part of the mix, as you say.

  12. Larry Gilman says:

    Note: the GFW PDFs are OK if downloaded and opened with Adobe Acrobat, but are not legible in my browser (happens to be Safari).

  13. James Torriani says:

    About 20 years ago there was a proposal to sell New York State power from the James Bay Hydro dam in Quebec. This was killed by Gov. Mario Cuomo after the Creek Indians claimed this would “flood their sacred hunting grounds” This was a remote area in northern Quebec.

  14. Joan Savage says:

    The joint US-Canada Saint Lawrence Seaway hydro plants attracted industries that were heavy users of electricity: General Motors Central Foundry, Alcoa aluminum smelting and fabricating, paper mills and others.

    Central Foundry contaminated soils and river sediments with PCBs. A paper mill spewed so much fluoride into the atmosphere that cows died because their teeth and bones were crumbling.

    Fish ladders were inadequate for normal migration and fisheries in the Great Lakes were affected.

    The international shipping that moved through the seaway locks brought invasive species in the bilge water the ships dumped into the Great Lakes.

    Whatever big hydro is, it isn’t pure water.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    We ought to use hydro-electricity until the emissions disaster has been cured, until the neoplastic capitalist economic system has been euthanased, until we have humanely reduced the earth’s population and redistributed global wealth justly to create a decent life for all, and then, as part of a massive project to restore the planet to its beauty, we can demolish the dams, drain the reservoirs and restore the ecosystems. By then our energy requirements will have been considerably reduced, and solar and new technologies will suffice.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The fluoride pollution problem with aluminium smelting was the reason that they cleverly decided to add it to the water supply, ‘for our own good’, of course. They had some smart German scientists, brought over after the war, who generously shared the results of their experiments in adding fluoride to the water supply in concentration camps, because the neurological effects tended to pacify the inmates (these days they’d be called ‘the clients’ as they are in Australia’s Gulag of refugee detention camps).

  17. Yeah, and there are lots of other issues, too. Dams are enormously expensive and they silt-up in 50 years or so. They disrupt the flow of natural rivers, displace a lot of carbon with their concrete and so on.

    I’d say that if this involves hooking up existing dams to our grid, it’s probably good — if they are not producing up to their potential, why not ramp them up? But if it involves building new dams, it’s probably better to pursue renewables.

  18. Yes. Look at what’s happening in the Great Lakes — and water levels in dams in the U.S. Southwest for that matter.

  19. Careful Mulga — you might be jumping into the deep end here. Just some friendly advice from someone who is basically an admirer.

    In the U.S. there has been much hullabaloo about how adding fluoride to the water supply is a “communist plot” (now probably a Muslim plot or a U.N. plot), when there is solid evidence that it strengthens children’s developing teeth and helps prevent tooth decay.

  20. ElMadster says:

    Why not do both?

  21. mulp says:

    While the private landowners fighting the XL Pipeline had environmentalists to sabotage their cause and make conservatives support the Kelo authorized government taking by eminent domain to give the land for private corporations for private profit, in NH, conservatives are working hard to block the Northern Pass by supporting the landowners who are opposed to the “taking” even of just the view of power lines running a half mile away.

    If Bill McKibben would come to NH and fight the Canadian hydro by blocking the Northern Pass, conservatives all around the US would rush into ram the powerline down the throats of NH landowners.

  22. Joan Savage says:

    Fascinating, and double thanks, as you inferentially reminded me I’d erred in ascribing the fluoride to paper mills when most of it was from Reynolds Aluminum / Alcoa Aluminum.

  23. Addicted says:

    Wait, so your argument is that conservatives gave up on their deeply held beliefs because environmentalists also supported them?

    And you think the problem here are the environmentalists…

    Your “conservatives” sound like a bunch of 6 year olds throwing tantrums.

  24. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Beware the line between fact and fiction, ME

  25. Joan Savage says:


    The aluminum – fluoride link along the St Lawrence is well documented, and I should have remembered it more clearly.

    I haven’t researched the bit Mulga told.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Merrelyn, you’re not accusing me of confabulating, are you? Heaven forfend. I read it in some book or article concerning Operation Paperclip. Now I attempt to Google the name of the German scientist involved (who allegedly went to work for Alcoa or somebody in the USA) and all I find is the repetition of some lunacy that not even I would give credence to. Why is life so unkind?