Dam Nation: Hydroelectric Developments in Canada

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Editor’s Note: This is the introductory post for a series titled “Dam Nation: Hydroelectric Developments in Canada.”   

Is hydroelectricity “green”? Renewable energy advocates are divided on this score. On the one hand, electricity from falling water seems no different than, say, wind power. On the other, large hydroelectric projects require enormous reservoirs which, in addition to the environmental and social destruction that can result from their initial creation, have a tendency to leak methane, a potent GHG.

Some think we have reached, or already passed, peak hydro. True, the biggest hydro dam in the world – the Three Gorges in China – was recently finished. But there are also numerous signs of a slowdown, even reversal, of the past century’s obsession with dams.

Daniel-Johnson Dam and Manic-5 Generating Station, Quebec
Daniel-Johnson Dam and Manic-5 Generating Station, Quebec

Both Canada and the United States started off the twentieth century as global leaders in hydroelectric production; but the two nations ended the century headed in disparate directions. The U.S. hasn’t built a mega dam since the 1970s. Not only has the United States ceased building big power dams, but it is a leader in a growing dam removal movement, exemplified by the success of the documentary film DamNation.

Canada has removed some dams as well (though in both countries removal has focused on obsolete dams, many of which interfere with fish migration). But, unlike its largest trading partner, Canada has never stopped building big dams. In fact, Canada is in the midst of building, or trying to build, a number of major hydro dams.

What explains the different dam trajectories in northern North America? Is Canada damned to be a nation of dams?

This series takes a stab at answering those questions. The contributors provide their takes on three of the most prominent power developments happening today, situating current events within historical context. Tina Loo, who is completing a trans-Canada study of people displaced by state-led projects, addresses Site C on the Peace River in British Columbia (September 14). Caroline Desbiens has written a book on James Bay hydro developments in northern Quebec, and will tackle plans for the next phase in that massive effort to replumb the region (September 19). David Massell, author of two books on hydroelectric development in eastern Canada, engages the Muskrat Falls (Lower Churchill River) project in Labrador (September 21).

Hydroelectric Developments Covered in This Series
Hydroelectric Developments Covered in This Series

A little more history is in order. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, hydroelectric generating stations began popping up on both sides of the Canadian-American border. These were among the earliest on the globe. Though there is debate about which North American hydro generation should be considered the “first” – depending on whether one measures by the first hydraulic generation, the first hydro plant, or the first commercial generation, and so on – it is clear that electricity was being generated from water by the early 1880s in Canadian locales such as Chaudière Falls in Ottawa and Montmorency Falls outside Quebec City, and in the United States at Appleton, Wisconsin and Grand Rapids, Michigan. By 1886 there were 45 water-powered electric plants operating in the United States and Canada.

Chaudiere Dam and Generating Stations in 2006
Chaudiere Dam and Generating Stations in 2006
Photo by Daniel Macfarlane
Hydroelectric Stations at Niagara Falls Built in the Early-Twentieth Century
Beaurharnois Generating Station in 1941

Niagara Falls quickly became a focal point of continental hydro production and distribution on a large scale, establishing patterns and practices that were followed elsewhere. Technological improvements, particularly alternating current, led to the construction of a number of private hydroelectric plants at the iconic cataract. The earliest were on the New York side, with the first Canadian powerhouse dating to 1901, joined soon by several others.

The early Canadian plants at Niagara were mostly subsidiaries of U.S. companies, and the majority of their electricity was sent across the river to the United States since there was little market for it in Canada at this point. Several other crossborder interconnections followed, each involving the firm export of electricity from Canada to a customer on the U.S. side (e.g., an 85-year export contract for 56 megawatts to Alcoa from a generating station on the St. Lawrence at Cedar Rapids, Quebec).[1]  The Canadian federal government adopted a laissez-faire approach to electricity exports, and by 1910 about one-third of Canada’s electricity was being exported.[2]

By 1920, generation stations had been put up all across the continent and hydro represented 97% of the electricity produced in Canada, and 20% in the United States; by the 1940s, hydro was still responsible for about 90% of the electricity generated in Canada, and 40% in the United States. [3] This coincided with the start of the “big” dam era in the 1930s, epitomized by the Boulder/Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.

Jump forward to 2016, and the largest generating stations in Canada are now well north of most of the country’s population. But for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century most of Canada’s major hydroelectric generating stations weren’t far from major population centers, and many of the largest – e.g., on the Columbia, St. Lawrence, and Niagara – were cooperative undertakings with the United States and close to, or on, the border.

Keenleyside Dam in BC
Keenleyside Dam in BC

The U.S. and Canada competed – and cooperated – in the 1950s and 1960s to build bigger hydro generating stations. But by the late 1970s, the United States had stopped building them.

Now, we do need to be careful about misrepresenting the situation. The U.S. did continue to build many small and medium-size dams, hydro and otherwise: today, out of the 80,000 dams in the U.S. higher than 3 feet, a little more than 2,500 produce electricity. Indeed, the U.S. remains one of the biggest hydro producers in the world; contingent on which measurement one uses, in the twenty-first century Canada is behind only China in global hydro production, with the United States also in the top five.

Those caveats out of the way, the fact remains that the Americans haven’t constructed a large dam in decades – Canada, meanwhile, never stopped building big dams. While the U.S. was scaling back its megadams developments, in the 1970s and 1980s Canada was upping the ante and building even larger power dams, such as the Robert-Bourassa GS and Churchill Falls GS.

So why did the U.S. cease building big dam? One of the most straightforward answers is that it simply ran out of ideal dam sites – but that isn’t true, or at least certainly not the whole story. Sure, the U.S. had dammed the majority of its prime dam locations, such as in the Colorado, Columbia, and Tennessee basins. But there were many big projects remaining that were almost, but ultimately weren’t, built: the Rampart in Alaska, or a number of dams proposed for the Grand Canyon, for example.

Tim Palmer suggests that a primary reason that the U.S. didn’t continue to build big dams was the rise of an environmental/river movement, and the realization that many dams don’t make sense economically.[4] Some resistance to dams surely stemmed from the fact that, out of the thousands of dams that had been built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation, many of them were wasteful, pork barrel projects.

Hydro Quebec logo in 1944
Hydro Quebec logo in 1944

But the flip side of that question is: why did Canada continue to build big dams? The posts in this series provide some clues, and in doing so, share a number of themes.

The role of the state is apparent. Hydro developments in the first half of the century were often undertaken by private interests, but all the big projects since have been publicly funded. The dominance of state-led projects means that federalism must be factored in. The provinces began asserting primary jurisdiction over hydro developments early on, though it took until about the Second World War for all the constitutional niceties to be ironed out. And the largest provinces had power utilities that became powers unto themselves. Ontario Hydro famously began as a sort of hybrid public entity, but both British Columbia and Quebec’s public hydro utilities, for example, started off as private enterprises before being nationalized (Ontario Hydro, for its part, moved in the opposite direction).

Nor should we discount the nation-building aspects of these developments, including cultural affinities and various forms of hydro/hydraulic nationalism. The ubiquity of hydroelectric generation in Canada is revealed by the fact that Canadians, especially in Ontario, tend to call all electricity “hydro” regardless of its source (“how much’s your hydro bill, eh?”). And hydroelectricity is clearly tied to identity in other provinces, especially Quebec. Might we posit that Canadians have a unique attachment to hydroelectricity as a home-grown energy source – using the nation’s natural birthright – that reduces dependence on the United States? Conversely, could it be that Canadians have continued to build big dams simply because they don’t have as strong as an environmental ethos as Americans?

All three authors use a historical approach to frame and contextualize contemporary large dam projects – two of which are currently being built (Site C and Muskrat Falls), and another which was almost started, then stalled, but is still planned (James Bay). The fact that these developments are extensions of past projects, and plans for each of these developments stretch back several decades, speaks to another connecting theme: the legacy of “path dependencies”. This is a key concept for historians of technology, as are several others clearly at play in these, such as megaprojects, infrastructure, and large technical systems. Obviously, all the posts in this series contribute to the burgeoning field of energy history (speaking of, in the Canadian context check out this recently-published collection). Environmental historians have been drivers of this vital and exciting area of inquiry, which has also been pushed by historians of technology, science, politics, business, etc.

Questions of imperialism course through this series like water through a turbine. The three posts collectively raise questions about the extent to which the Canadian state is both the victim and perpetrator of different forms of colonialism.

In terms of victim, is Canada an energy colony of the United States since so much of Canada’s hydroelectricity is exported south? Is this the hydroelectric versions of “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free”: i.e., why dam your own rivers when you can just purchase electricity from Canada without any of the ecological consequences, social dislocation, and questionable cost-benefit scenarios?

Current Canada-US Energy Grid
Current Canada-U.S. Energy Grid

In terms of perpetrator, many Canadian hydroelectric projects have dislocated First Nations communities. All of the projects addressed in this series are in the northern tier, where the primary population is Indigenous. Early Canadian treaties with First Nations in northern Ontario, for example, have been termed “resource” treaties because the purpose was to gain state access to things like lumber, minerals, and prime hydroelectric sites. Native reserves were often located on land that the Canadian state didn’t think was valuable in terms of natural resources. But as technology enabled hydro dams to get bigger, and dam projects migrated to northern rivers, First Nations and their territory have increasingly come into conflict with hydro reservoirs. How, and even if, these clashes can be equitably worked out is an ongoing question.

Ultimately, dams aren’t just technological innovations that herald progress and prosperity by magically turning water into electricity. Nor are they just concrete megaliths that intrude on ecological processes. As the contributors to this “Dam Nation” series demonstrate, dams are also potent symbols for Canada’s past, present, and future.

Feature Image: Parks Canada sign on Rideau System. Photo by Daniel Macfarlane.


[1] Mark Perlgut, Electricity across the border: the U.S.-Canadian experience (New York: C.D. Howe Research Institute, 1978) 11-12. See also A.E.D. Grauer, “The export of electricity from Canada” in R.M. Clark, ed., Canadian Issues: essays in honour of Henry F. Angus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961); Karl Froschauer, White Gold: Hydroelectric Power in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999).

[2] Janet Martin-Nielsen, “South over the Wires: Hydroelectricity Exports from Canada, 1900-1925.” Water History 1 (2009): 109-29.

[3] Daniel Macfarlane, “Current Concerns: Canadian-American Energy Relations and the St. Lawrence and Niagara Megaprojects,” in Amelie Kiddle, ed., Energy in the Americas: Critical Reflections on Energy and History (CalgaryUniversity of Calgary Press, forthcoming).

[4] Tim Palmer, Endangered Rivers and the Conservation Movement, 2nd ed. (Latham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of five books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be released in 2024. Website: https://danielmacfarlane.wordpress.com Twitter: @Danny__Mac__


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