Hydro-Québec: Lessons in Renewable Energy

Charlie Walker
November 11, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017


Fig. 1: Hydroelectric Dam. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Hydro-Québec is the public utility that manages the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity in the Canadian province of Québec. Founded in 1944 from the consolidation of several private firms, the company is wholly owned by the Québec government, and is a world leader in the field of hydroelectricity: the company uses water to generate over 99% of its electricity, leveraging Québec's abundance of water resources to provide inexpensive and renewable electricity to Québecers and to wholesale markets in northeastern North America. [1] In 2015 Hydro-Québec sold 190 TWh of electricity, 29.3 TWh of which was exported out of province, bringing in CAD $1.6 M of revenue; Hydro-Québec alone supplies 10% of the electricity consumed in New England, accounting for about half the company's exports. [2]

Hydroelectricity Primer

Hydroelectricity is electricity produced by hydropower. Broadly speaking, there are three main categories of hydropower technology: run of river, impoundment, and pumped storage. Run-of-river technologies rely on the flow of a river which is fed to a turbine generator. Impoundment systems, by far the most common, employ dams to store water: the potential energy in the dam is converted to electricity by passing the stored water from an elevated point through a turbine generator at a lower point (see Fig. 1). Pumped hydropower is a two-dam system that produces electricity by moving water between reservoirs at different elevations. The cost of hydroelectricity is relatively low, making it a competitive source of renewable energy.

James Bay Project

Despite the promises of hydroelectric power generation, traditional impoundment systems are not without their controversies. Hydro-Québec learned a harsh lesson on the social and environmental concerns surrounding dam construction in their James Bay Project (Project de la Baie-James), a series of hydroelectric power stations in northwestern Québec covering an area the size of the State of New York. Costing upwards of US $20 billion to build, it is one of the largest hydroelectric systems in the world and generates enough energy to meet the electricity demands of Belgium. [3]

Development of hydroelectric resources in northern Québec began in the 1970s with the creation of the James Bay Development Corporation. The massive undertaking began without consulting First Nation (Cree and Naskapi) and Inuit communities, and was met with substantial opposition. The Québec Association of Indians sued the provincial government in 1973 (as the development was planned on native lands) and won an injunction blocking the construction of the project. Despite a series of appeals and reversals, the courts affirmed Québec's legal obligation to negotiate a treaty covering the territory. The resulting agreement - La Convention de la Baie James et du Nord Québecois (James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement) - was signed in 1975, and had wide-reaching implications for economic development and property issues in northern Québec. [4]

Despite the James Bay Agreement, Hydro-Québec continued to face opposition when further development was planned: in the 1990s, forceful opposition by the Crees and their environmental allies caused the cancellation of the Great White Project, a proposed 3,000 MW complex in James Bay. In 2002, the Québec provincial government under Bernard Landry signed the Paix des Braves (Peace of the Braves) agreement with the Grand Council of the Crees which settled environmental rules for further development in northern territories. [4]


In an era of increased scrutiny towards development of oil pipelines, particularly as they pertain to indigenous land rights, it is easy to look towards renewable energies as a controversy-free alternative. [5] Hydro-Québec's experience with the James Bay Project highlights the challenges associated with hydroelectric power, and should act as a warning to those governments and companies that would assume no opposition in the development of renewable energy projects.

© Charlie Walker. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. L. Manore, Cross-Currents: Hydroelectricity and Engineering of Northern Ontario (Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1999).

[2] "Rapport Annuel 2015,"Hydro Québec, 2015.

[3] Hornig, James F., Social and Environmental Impacts of the James Bay Hydroelectric Project (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999).

[4] C. Desbiens, Power From the North (University of British Columbia Press, 2013).

[5] R. Nemec, "Dakota Access Pipeline: Industry Retrospective on Lessons Learned," Pipeline and Gas Journal 244, No. 8 (August 2017).