• The main spillway for the Hydro-Quebec's Riviere des Prairies dam

    The main spillway for the Hydro-Quebec's Riviere des Prairies dam. (Photo: Blachardb/Wikimedia Commons)

From First Nations trade routes to Jacques Cartier’s ships inching their way down the St. Lawrence River to voyageurs in their Rabaska canoes, rivers have always played an important role in Quebec’s culture and economy, but perhaps never more so than today.

Today, the province’s rivers do far more than move explorers and goods: they’re a source of renewable hydroelectricity that heats homes, cooks food and powers lights for Quebec’s eight million residents — and they do it for a fraction of the price of electricity in other regions in North America.

For nearly 75 years, provincially owned and operated Hydro-Québec has been the driving force behind this power, building the fourth-largest network of hydro generating stations in the world. The province produces more hydro power than the rest of Canada combined, and is responsible for billions of dollars of Quebec’s economy every year. Hydro-Québec is more than just a successful utility company, however. It’s a symbol of Quebec’s ingenuity, talent and foresight.

Indeed, the province’s hydroelectricity industry has never looked better. With greenhouse gas emissions and climate change on the tips of politicians’ tongues worldwide, Hydro-Québec’s electricity source is a much sought after commodity. So it’s little surprise that when the provincial government outlined its objectives for Hydro-Quebec’s 2016-2020 strategic plan, it focused on exports, innovation and plans for rivers in the north. To contextualize the impact of Hydro-Québec on the province, the nation and the world, Géographica spoke with four hydro power experts about the utility’s history, world-leading innovations, environmental standards and influence. 

ANDRÉ BOLDUC, economist and unofficial Hydro-Québec historian
Now retired, Bolduc began working for Hydro-Québec in 1963. He has written five books about the utility and its role in the province.

The first ember of Hydro-Québec was in 1944. Hydroelectricity in Quebec was a politically charged topic because there were a few dozen private hydro companies, but their territories criss-crossed and the fees were exorbitant. It was a mess. That year, the provincial government nationalized Montreal Light, Heat and Power, an electricity and gas company to create the Québec Hydro-Electric Commission, commonly known as Hydro-Québec. Though some applauded the move, it wasn’t well received overall. It was a war between the established economic powers, which saw the state intervention as an abusive, even communist move, and the province. But with the Second World War still being fought, the provincial government couldn’t go any further because power was centralized in Ottawa.

In May 1963, 45 of 46 privatecompaniesand many municipalities accepted buyout offers from Hydro-Québec. The importance of this goes far beyond the economics of cheap electricity for Quebecers. Economically, Hydro-Québec gave the province an advantage for energy-dependent industries. The creation of massive hydroelectric projects led Quebec to become a hot spot for big, energy-heavy industries such as aluminum, pulp-and-paper and chemical companies.

Perhaps more important, as new generations of Quebec intellectuals began to emerge, Hydro-Québec gave educated Francophones an outlet to pursue different types of careers — notably engineering, economics and finance. It was an incubator of expertise for Quebecers and our engineers became experts in electricity production and dam building.

The James Bay period is also fascinating. Not only did we create one of the largest hydroelectric projects in the world, but it allowed us to explore our territory. We had a thorough environmental process before it was standard, and it also put us in contact with First Peoples and allowed us to develop a relationship with them that is ongoing . For me, it is the golden age of Hydro-Québec.

SERGE MONTAMBAULT, robotics expert
Montambault is the manager of power-line robotics at the Institut de recherche d’Hydro-Québec, which has been on the cutting-edge of hydroelectricity technology for 40 years.

Traditional, 315-kilovolt transmission lines were highly inefficient for transporting electricity the 1,000 kilometres from James Bay to Montreal. The invention of the 735-kilovolt transmission line in 1965 revolutionized electricity transmission and made Hydro-Québec a leader in electricity innovation. Hydro-Québec invests $130 million a year in research and development to provide new solutions to cope with generation, transmission, distribution and construction challenges.

People might be surprised at how technologically advanced the energy sector is. Some might ask, “Why do 40 people specializing in robotics work for Hydro-Québec?” The answer is that we’ve been here for 25 years developing specific robotic devices for very specific equipment. But that’s just part of the Institut de recherche d’Hydro-Québec. There are 500 people who work here, and about 400 are technical specialists developing solutions for Hydro-Québec.

But we don’t just keep our inventions. For 15 years, the robotics department has been focused on meeting Hydro-Québec’s needs, but with an eye to the rest of the world as a potential market for its innovations. One of the best recent examples is the Line Scout, a remotely-operated, semi-autonomous robot designed to inspect transmission lines in hard-to-reach places, such as over rivers. It can even inspect lines without interrupting service. It’s the only robot in the world operating on live lines, and it’s been deployed in the United Kingdom and China.

Drones are also definitely in our future. We’re focusing on applying drone technology to the very specific needs of the electrical industry, so we’re pushing existing platforms to be more reliable and safe and capable of performing tasks in harsh weather.

BENOIT GAGNON, biologist
Gagnon began his Hydro-Québec career 25 years ago as a consultant. Today, he’s the chef expertise en environment in Hydro-Québec’s equipment and shared services division.

A good example of our work is the La Romaine complex on the Romaine River on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, which has four separate generating stations. Before we began the project, our team of archeologists, ethnologists, biologists, forestry experts, chemists and acoustic experts spent four years completing about 70 different environmental impact studies. The results dictated everything from where our dams were constructed to where lines and towers should go.

One of the biggest challenges of the Romaine is that it’s home to Atlantic salmon spawning grounds. The salmon use the first 50 kilometres of the river, so we built Romaine 1 52.5 kilometres from the mouth of the river. We also built a nature reserve around the dam to maintain the necessary environment for the different life cycles of the salmon. We also recreated two spawning grounds, and after one year the salmon were returning and using them.

Another interesting challenge was that Romaine 3 was built near golden eagle nesting sites. We placed a tracker on a male eagle to see how he used the area so we could minimize our impact on the population. We moved a telecommunications tower 10 kilometres from our planned site because it was close to where he hunts, and we also took special care to make our lines extra visible by using “bird flight diverters” — twisted pieces of brightly coloured PVC — on a four-kilometre stretch of line so that in bad weather eagles wouldn’t accidently hit them.

One of the biggest criticisms of hydro is the flooding of vast tracts of land to create reservoirs. I think it would surprise people to learn that these aren’t sterile environments. After a period of stabilization following flooding, fish populations thrive. They create new wetlands and habitat for moose, bears, birds and other animals and plants. They are, in effect, huge lakes.

Brian Craik, First Nations representative
Craik is the director of federal relations at the Grand Council of the Cree. He has been studying and working with the Cree of the James Bay area since 1972. 

Hydro-Québec and the Cree didn’t really know each other until the start of the Le Grande project in the late 1960s. It was a problematic time. The project was going to affect the largest watershed in the Cree territory and there was no consultation with the Cree. The Cree tried to stop the project and won their first court case, but one week later that court case was overturned by the Quebec Court of Appeal, which said that the hydro project was more important to the Quebec public than the flooded land was to the Cree, and that the Cree would be compensated for it. That led to the negotiation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec agreement.

For the recent Eastmain generating station projects, Hydro-Québec made a monitoring committee of about 50 people, including Cree experts and trappers who were affected. I was on the environmental assessment committee that reviewed Eastmain-1A, and we didn’t get anything from Hydro-Québec that didn’t have a note on it saying that the committee had reviewed it.

The committee developed measures to preserve the fish in the Rupert River, and to protect the land, Hydro-Québec came up with the idea of building the Tommy Neeposh transfer tunnel [a three-kilometre tunnel under Lake Sillimanite, which takes the water diverted from the Rupert River to the north while leaving the lake intact].

I think you can say that the Eastmain 1-A project heralds a new type of relationship. Future projects would have to happen the way Eastmain 1-A did. But first Quebec and the Cree will have to have discussions as to whether new projects happen, and the Cree will decide whether they’re something they can live with.