“All is not well.”
- Hamlet, in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet
It’s extremely easy to naively believe that hydroelectricity is not a source of pollution. Moreover, that conviction is reinforced by the fact that water – which probably looks as inoffensive as a hair spray – is at the centre of the production of electricity. As a matter of fact, hydroelectricity is totally far from being as green as the leprechaun’s flashy clothes.
For instance, in the 1980s, 2500 km2 of the Amazonian forest were flooded in order to make sure that the day is pleasantly the day and the night is clearly the night in the Brazilian city of Manaus. Although a great area of trees was wiped off from the map, many members of the Brazilian government thought that, in the end, hydroelectricity will benefit to their citizens. Nowadays, hydraulic plants produce more than 80% of Brazil’s electricity.
Unfortunately, the flooding of natural areas, which is the result of diversion of rivers, can quickly become an invisible source of pollution according to recent scientific discoveries. Furthermore, these discoveries reveal us that hydropower “can emit more greenhouse gases per kilowatt-hour than fossil fuels, including the dirtiest coal plants” (Patrick McCully, 2006), even though many scientists disagree on that point, but let’s talk about hydroelectricity.
British journalist Jim Giles stated that the problem rather lies in “the biomass contained in the artificial lakes”. In fact, Giles supports his argument by saying that when some areas are flooded, “great quantities of organic matters are wedged under the water”. Furthermore, the vegetation and soils that are “wedged under the water” release carbon dioxide, methane and, in some cases, nitrous oxide according to Patrick McCully, the director of the International Rivers Network (IRN).
During the first years, the emission of these gases might be particularly high after a reservoir is created. Unfortunately, the director of the IRN straightforwardly upholds that the “river that feeds the reservoir, [along with] the plants and planktons that grow in [the river], will continue to provide more organic matters to fuel [the natural] greenhouse gas production”.
Given this situation, let’s comprehend that the rest of the pollution occurs at the dam itself. When the water, that contains tons of methane, jets out from turbines and spillways, it releases in the air most of its methane just like the fizz from a newly opened bottle of soda. In addition to that, Danny Cullenward, an expert in energy policies of the Stanford University, estimated that between 95 million and 122 million tons of methane are released in the air in one year.
Obviously, if a nuance had to be brought, let it be said that speaking about greenhouse gases emissions, a dam in the tropics (ex: Brazil) is technically more polluting than one that is located in an ordinary climatic zone (ex: somewhere in Quebec). Again, it’s not because Quebec or other Canadian provinces are less polluting than Brazil that we have to belittle the Brazilians. As strange as it might look, Hydro-Quebec, the public company that supplies people “provincewide” in Quebec, knew this shocking truth about hydroelectricity.
In fact, this company has also cut funding to scientists whose works came to a harsh conclusion that could have potentially damage its interests. Besides, you should also know that in November, Hydro-Quebec also fiercely exhorted the scientific journal Lakes and Reservoirs: Research and Management not to publish an article written by these same scientists, according to one of them.
Does our society need a debate on the legitimacy of hydroelectricity? Indubitably. In my opinion, this blog entry’s issue opens a very interesting debate. Our federal and provincial politicians must remain tough on each square centimetre of this battlefield called “Global Warming”. Nonetheless, the concerned Canadian provincial Environment ministers must not dither to find a way to make sure that hydroelectricity is “climate-friendly”, as the director of the IRN Patrick McCully said it, but this will rather be difficult.