Québecois Hydroelectricity Dispute Puts Hydropower in Spotlight

clean renewable energy source has familiar pros and cons

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A hydroelectric plant in Québec met controversy in Canada and the United States. Power companies, local residents, conservationists, and others have gone to court to argue its legality. How does hydroelectricity stack up?

Turbines generate power by converting kinetic energy into electricity as water flows through the hydropower system at hydroelectric power plants. Photo by Roman Zaiets / Shutterstock

Hydro-Québec is responsible for a staggering project to send hydroelectric energy from a local river through Maine and into Massachusetts. However, the public utility company has met resistance from Canadians and Americans who disapprove of new development in their areas—several of whom have received funding by rival energy companies and have taken Hydro-Québec to court. The case could serve as a landmark for clean energy companies that are building up and replacing other manufacturers of energy.

While the debate will continue for years after the Hydro-Québec lawsuit, hydroelectricity is unlikely to disappear any time soon. With regard to clean and renewable energy, the public is familiar with wind farms and solar panels, but how does hydroelectricity work and what are its pros and cons? In his video series The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained, Dr. Michael E. Wysession, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, lays out the crucial information about hydroelectric power.

Making Water Work for You

According to Dr. Wysession, humans have been using water to perform work for more than 2,000 years. Invented independently by the ancient Greeks and ancient Chinese, the water wheel was later perfected by the Romans. Of course, we don’t see as many of them today.

“The largest form of tapped water energy is clearly in the form of hydroelectricity—using the water to spin turbines and generate electricity,” he said. “This was first done back in 1882 with a dam across the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin. Several large hydroelectric projects were built during the Depression; funded by the U.S. government both to provide jobs and to allow for economic growth in depressed regions.”

The bare bones of how it works begins when water falls through a channel called a penstock. According to Dr. Wysession, its gravitational potential energy is converted into the kinetic energy that is the motion of the water, which turns the turbines of a generator. It’s an incredibly simple concept that’s relatively efficient and constitutes 16% of the energy used in the United States today.

Staying Cool or Getting in Hot Water?

Like every other form of energy, hydroelectric power has its pros and cons.

“The fuel is free, which means that the costs of generating power are very low,” Dr. Wysession said. “Hydropower is very flexible; you can ramp power up or down in a matter of minutes in response to energy demands. Hydropower has very low carbon dioxide emissions; the curing of cement in making a dam does release a large amount of carbon dioxide but it’s still negligible compared to fossil fuel power plants.”

Additionally, dams are useful for storing water year-round. This stored water can also be used for agriculture, for controlling floods, and even for human leisure like boating or swimming. However, on the subject of dams, there are also disadvantages to using hydropower.

“There are significant geographic limitations to hydropower—you need a river to have a lot of water, and a large drop, and there just aren’t that many places that have both,” Dr. Wysession said. “And not every river can support a dam. If the region is flat, a huge amount of land needs to be flooded to provide enough height on the dam to make the plant economically worthwhile, and this displaces people and destroys ecosystems.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily