Hydroelectric Dams – Providing Clean Energy Solutions for British Columbia

December 4, 2019   |  

British Columbia’s hydroelectric dams have contributed to reducing the impacts of a shifting climate for more than 100 years. In 2019, hydropower continues to be one of the best ways to meet the challenge of society’s demand for energy in a low carbon, climate-protecting business environment.

Canada’s 2030 target to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 30% below its 2005 level of 732 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2 eq) (1) is ambitious, but here in B.C. – the fourth largest producer of electricity in Canada(2) – we believe it can be done.

Achieving the target requires, among other things, phasing out coal-fired power plants across the country and switching to a mix of renewable electricity sources such as hydropower, wind, solar and biomass generation. In B.C., where we’ve been drawing upon renewable energy sources for more than a century, we’re ahead of the game. In 2019, 90 percent of our electricity comes from hydropower, generating close to 16,000 megawatts annually.

B.C.’s GHG emissions in 2017 were approximately 62 Mt CO2 eq, or 8 percent of Canada’s total emissions,(3) accounting for 13 percent of the population. The future of hydropower in B.C. continues to be very promising; the province will be a major player in helping Canada to meet its 2030 target.

The province’s primary producer of electricity, BC Hydro, generates most of its electricity from dams on the Columbia and Peace Rivers on the mainland and Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Like a giant battery pack, B.C.’s reservoir system harnesses the potential kinetic energy of water, which can be deployed to manage fluctuations in power supply from other renewable electricity sources, such as wind and solar power.

The first hydroelectric generating stations in B.C. were built in the early 1900s, followed by a significant expansion in generating capacity after the Second World War. KCB has participated in the design, construction, maintenance and upgrading of this hydroelectric system since our company opened its doors in 1950.

In the early 1950s, KCB worked on the Kenney Dam and the Kemano Generating Station on the Nechako River, built to supply power to the Aluminum Company of Canada’s aluminum smelter in Kitimat, and now operated by Rio Tinto. Later that decade, Glenn Crippen, one of KCB’s founders, completed an engineering survey of the Columbia River to support negotiations between Canada and the U.S.A. about use of the river, which crosses the border between the two countries.

Under the Columbia River Treaty, three large storage reservoirs would be built on the Canadian side of the Columbia River, for flood control south of the border and for electricity generation. KCB was involved in designing two of the dams: the Hugh Keenleyside Dam in 1968 and the Mica Dam in 1973. The third dam at Revelstoke was built by BC Hydro in 1984. Currently under re-negotiation to address Indigenous rights, climate change and the reintroduction of salmon to the river, the Columbia River Treaty has resulted in a dependable international north-south electricity transmission grid stimulating development in B.C. and six western states since 1964.

The Mica Generating Station on the Columbia River has six turbines in its powerhouse.
The Revelstoke Generating Station on the Columbia River.

Following the mid-1980s, B.C. continued to expand its hydropower capacity. Provincial crown corporation Columbia Power invested proceeds from the sale of electricity to the U.S.A under the Columbia River Treaty to add a power generating plant to the Hugh Keenleyside Dam, and to add new powerhouses to the Brilliant Dam near Castlegar and the Waneta Dam near Trail. BC Hydro is currently constructing a third hydroelectric dam on the Peace River, the Site C Clean Energy Project, downriver from the W.A.C. Bennett Dam built in 1968 and the Peace Canyon Dam built in 1980. The Site C Dam is scheduled to generate about 1,100 megawatts of electricity annually starting in 2024 – enough to power about 450,000 homes in B.C. per year (4).

Waneta Dam near Trail, B.C.

Complementing B.C.’s large hydropower facilities, smaller run-of-river hydro plants have powered mines, mills and towns throughout the province for decades. Run-of-river hydropower diverts the natural flow of a river downhill through turbines to generate electricity, without the necessity for a dam. This is a growing source of renewable energy in B.C. In 2014, according to Clean Energy BC, there were 56 run-of-river facilities in the province, and another 25 were in the planning stages (5).

BC Hydro continues to modernize its large hydropower facilities through seismic upgrades and other dam safety improvements, while enhancing their power generating capacity and efficiency. The John Hart Generating Station in Campbell River on Vancouver Island is a good example. In late 2018, the 70-year old powerhouse was replaced and moved entirely underground to withstand earthquake forces and upgraded with new turbines and a water bypass for fish during facility shutdowns.

Looking to the future, adding other renewable energy sources to hydroelectric facilities and storing power for on-demand electricity transmission will reinforce the sustainability of our hydropower resources. Pumped-storage hydropower uses electricity generated from other sources, such as wind turbines, to pump water from a lower elevation to a reservoir at a higher elevation. During periods of high electricity demand, the stored water is released through turbines to generate power.

In B.C., a feasibility study is underway for a pumped-storage facility that would pump water from Lake Revelstoke to a reservoir in the Monashee Mountains in what is known as a “closed-loop” system (6). In 2017, the world’s first ultimate hybrid “solar-hydro” power plant was developed in Portugal by floating a solar panel array on the reservoir, feeding 332 megawatt hours into the transmission grid enough to power 100 homes for a year (7).

These ideas are models for Canada’s future, as B.C.’s energy producers and engineering community continue their efforts towards meeting society’s demand for energy in a low carbon, climate-protecting business environment.

  1. Canada’s GHG emissions target https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/environmental-indicators/progress-towards-canada-greenhouse-gas-emissions-reduction-target.html
  2. C.’s energy profile https://www.cer-rec.gc.ca/nrg/ntgrtd/mrkt/nrgsstmprfls/bc-eng.html
  3. Electricity sources by Canadian provinces https://energyrates.ca/the-main-electricity-sources-in-canada-by-province/
  4. Site C Clean Energy Project Overview https://www.sitecproject.com/about-site-c/project-overview
  5. Run-of-river facilities in B.C. https://www.cleanenergybc.org/about/clean-energy-sectors/run-of-river
  6. Feasibility study for pumped-storage facility in B.C. https://www.bclocalnews.com/news/major-pumped-storage-hydro-project-proposed-north-of-revelstoke/
  7. Solar hydropower plant: https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/hydro-solar-plant_n_595f96dee4b02e9bdb0c0fa6
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