Jan 8, 2024
Waterpower is Canada’s most abundant renewable resource, providing 60 per cent of our electricity. But here’s the big question: as Canada looks to an emissions-free future, how can waterpower, one of the oldest power sources on the planet, help us get there? And what do we need to consider? To learn more about our hydroelectric future, we sat down with Gilbert Bennett, President and CEO of WaterPower Canada. Tune in.
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Dan Seguin 00:06
This is thinkenergy, the podcast that helps you better understand the fast-changing world of energy through conversations with game changers, industry leaders, and influencers. So, join me, Dan Seguin, as I explore both traditional and unconventional facets of the energy industry. Hey everyone, Happy New Year and welcome back. Here's a fun fact. Canada's electricity sector is one of the cleanest in the world when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Now today, we're going to focus on one of the oldest power sources on the planet. Hydropower generates power when flowing water spins a wheel or turbine. It was used by farmers as far back as ancient Greece for mechanical tasks like grinding grain. Canada's oldest hydroelectric generating station that still is in operation today was commissioned right here in Canada's nation's capital in 1891. Generating Station Number 2 is located on Victoria Island in the heart of downtown Ottawa is a stone's throw away from Parliament Hill. It's been providing clean, renewable electricity for more than 130 years. While hydroelectricity first powered our great city and country, it was fossil fuels that quickly became the dominant energy source during the Industrial Age of the 20th century, until nuclear power arrived on the scene in the early 1960s. Now, because Canada is a water rich country, it's not surprising that our water power is our most abundant renewable resource, providing 60% of our country's total electricity. That means six out of every 10 homes in Canada are powered by water. This makes Canada the third largest generator of hydroelectricity in the world, after China and Brazil. To reduce Canada's emissions of greenhouse gasses that cause climate change, we must continue to increase the amount of zero emissions electricity we produce and strategically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels in other sectors. So here is today's big question. Can one of the world's oldest renewable power sources play a major role in Canada's Net Zero future? So, joining us today on the podcast is Gilbert Bennett. He is the president and CEO of WaterPower Canada, founded in 1998. WaterPower Canada is the national nonprofit trade association dedicated to representing the water power industry. Gilbert, welcome to the show.
Gilbert Bennett 03:21
Good morning, Daniel. Great to be here.
Dan Seguin 03:23
Now, you've joined WaterPower Canada at a very interesting time where there's a lot of national and international conversations about developments in hydroelectricity, as countries strive to meet their net zero targets. What is your vision on how water power Canada can participate in Canada's energy transformation and decarbonization?
Gilbert Bennett 03:49
So, we at WaterPower Canada represent the Canadian hydro electric industry, so the owners and operators were the vast majority of the Canadian hydropower fleet. So all the major utilities are members of the association. And we also have our industry partners that design manufacturing constructs for the industry. So given the hydropower provided, over 60% of Canada's electricity supply is going to be the backbone of the electricity industry for decades to come. Our role is to make sure that industry, governments, and the federal government, in particular, understand the important role that we play in the electricity system, and why hydropower is a key advantage of building a renewable future for Canada. So we're going to be aware that we're the dominant renewable supply for the Canadian electricity system. We have important value that's provided in terms of reliability. And I guess the ability to integrate other renewables in the system. So, we're going to be here for decades. We're going to be playing a major role in that transformation and the decarbonization of our economy.
Dan Seguin 04:57
Now, what's the value proposition that hydroelectric power brings to a clean, affordable and NetZero future?
Right. So, most importantly, we have key attributes. And I sort of touched on that in our last question there, we're firm and reliable. So, think about hydropower, just firm generation, there's water in the reservoir, we're going to be producing power at the power plant. It's not a question of is the wind blowing, is the sun shining? It's long term, high capacity, firm generation. And when I think about high-capacity storage for hydropower, in larger, the larger hydro systems, we're talking about 1000s of megawatts of power generation, delivered for months on end with large reservoir storage. So that's an important attribute that contributes to the reliability of our Canadian electricity system. And secondly, is dispatchable. So, we can adjust output of the plant as necessary to meet needs as they change your day to day order in order to balance out the deliveries from other renewables. So, in the absence of a fossil fuel fleet, hydropower with those capabilities is really important for us to maintain reliability and deliveries on our electricity system.
Dan Seguin 06:18
Gilbert, some people still believe that investments in renewable energy translate to higher electricity costs. But I read on your website that provinces with the highest hydropower installed capacity have the lowest electricity costs, perhaps you can break down why that is and what you think the public should know about hydropower that they may not already know.
Gilbert Bennett 06:48
So, if we look at the provinces of Canada with the highest installed base hydropower, they have facilities that were built with large scale capacity and large-scale storage, and they were built in the 60s and 70s. And they still operate reliably today. So, we look back to sort of the major construction that happened in the Canadian hydropower sector. Several decades ago, those long-term reliable assets are now producing really low cost energy, a lot of financing has been addressed from those facilities, and they have low operating costs, the cost of maintaining those facilities is, is a lot lower than the cost of building new ones today. So those those legacy assets are really important contributors to the low rates, we see in the, what I'll call the hydro dependent jurisdictions.
Dan Seguin 07:37
Very insightful. Thanks, Gilbert. Now, I know water power, Canada has commissioned some research projects. Can you maybe talk about some of those, and what makes them important to your sector and your goals?
Gilbert Bennett 07:53
So those studies, and there were four of them that were completed through last year with important financial support from Natural Resources Canada, and fortunately, they address some important topics to discuss hydropower in general. So, the first one deals with this question that we just talked about, what's the role that hydropower facilities play in ensuring reliable service for customers. So now we're getting into some technical points, inertia load, following regulation, frequency and voltage control. So those are things that customers don't think about and don't have to worry about, because they're really important questions or system operators, the people who manage and operate electricity grids. So, it's important for policymakers who are drafting the rules through the electricity sector to understand that these capabilities are essential to delivering reliable service. And in the absence of fossil generation, delivering those capabilities to a large extent is going to fall to the hydro fleet. It's important to understand the services that are uniquely provided by hydro facilities, some of the variable renewables don't have these capabilities. And the services that are provided by the hydro fleet are going to be much more important in the future as we retire the fossil fuel fleet across Canada. So that's, that's the first one. The second study looked at the potential for pumped storage hydro in Canada. And that's a topic that we haven't talked about a lot. It's a mature technology that's used in many places in the world. But with our conventional hydropower fleet here in Canada, we haven't had to worry about too much, but it is becoming an issue as a way to store energy from variable renewables and make it available when needed factor projects under consideration in Ontario. Today, there are two major projects in Ontario, one led by OPG and Northland power, and the TC energy's project in Georgian Bay is another one that probably would be familiar to listeners in Ontario for sure. There are also projects in Alberta. They're looking at that technology. So potential for pump storage as a large-scale storage opportunity to firm up variable renewables. It's an important topic elsewhere in the world. And it's one that we thought would be useful to highlight attention here in Canada. Third study looks at the potential for updating our existing facilities to increase the output of those facilities. So, we've identified 1000s of megawatts of potential that can be realized by replacing the existing turbines and generators and existing plants. So, the point here is that we're using existing dams, reservoirs and structures, while updating the technology inside the plant. So that's a cost-effective way to increase the efficiency of the plant or to increase capacity on the grid. And then finally, the last report looks at the cost of energy from previous generation sources. And we introduced the point here that variable renewables are inexpensive energy sources, but there are additional costs that will be incurred in the electricity systems making them dispatchable and available. And those are, those are features that are built into hydro generation. So, we want to raise the point here that the grid services that I talked about a second ago, need to be factored in when we're comparing various generation sources. So these points are really important for policymakers to understand, well, they're drafting the rules for the industry, and ultimately, for the services that our customers are gonna be relying on. Lots and lots of detail there. And if anybody's interested in taking a look at those reports, are all posted on our website at waterpowercanada.ca.
Dan Seguin 11:28
Okay, I really like this next question here. What are some projects and innovations that you're seeing from your members that you feel may usher in a new era for waterpower?
Gilbert Bennett 11:42
I think we look back at our aspirational goal in Canada to be net zero by 2050. So, talk about that on a fairly regular basis. Various experts have said that we'll need to double our electricity supply to achieve that goal. So just think about that for a second 25 or 30 years, we're going to rebuild the industry that's taken 125 years to build the infrastructure Canada that we have today. So, you know, that's a daunting challenge. And I think it'd be the first sign of the scale of that effort is probably from Hydro Quebec, where they've indicated that they plan to spend somewhere between 155 and $185 billion dollars on their electricity system between now and 2035, in order to set the stage and Quebec to be net zero by 2050. That level of investment, that scale of development of their electricity system, I think is a huge one. And it's one that if we're going to achieve our or aspirational goal is going to be replicated in multiple jurisdictions when we look at significant investments required to set the stage to electrify our economy. So that in itself is a, you know, is a hugely important error for I see the electricity sector in general, feel comfortable saying that water power is going to be an important piece of that.
Dan Seguin 13:07
Now, if memory serves me right, your organization released a collection of success stories of partnerships between utilities, energy companies, indigenous businesses, and organizations affiliated with First Nations. Gilbert, what can you tell us about the path forward? And its intersection is clean energy and reconciliation?
Gilbert Bennett 13:34
Right. So that report, branding indigenous businesses is also on our website. And it's a collection of case studies from members from our member companies that provide concrete examples of how WaterPower Canada member companies are working with indigenous businesses, First Nations, both as partners and owners and developers of projects. So, I think in the context of reconciliation, it should be fairly clear that projects and activities that happen on traditional land should benefit people who you know, who own that land. And here we have some specific examples of how things can be done and are being done to benefit indigenous communities and businesses. So, it's the way we need to move forward with development. It's an opportunity to work together, it's an opportunity to jointly understand issues, opportunities, challenges with projects, and to really come to a common understanding of how to do business together, both between, you know, our member companies and indigenous communities, important step forward. And I think the way things are going to be done in the future.
Dan Seguin 14:43
Okay, moving on to some challenges. It seems that the International Energy Agency expects hydropower generation to increase 50% by 2040. Is the hydropower sector, like many, having difficulty attracting new talent? What are the ways your sector is working to entice youth to consider hydroelectricity to keep up with the growing demand?
Gilbert Bennett 15:14
So, this is a huge challenge for not just our industry, but the Canadian economy in general, we have a retiring workforce, as our population ages. And we're not replacing people across multiple sectors in our economy. Certainly, an issue in the trades for construction and operations. So, a concern in engineering is a concern in most professions, that we're not replacing our workforce. And for our industry, we have a couple of associations that are really focused on this question. So, shout out for electricity, Human Resources, Canada here, they are playing a key role in highlighting opportunities, and reasons why people who are entering the workforce, you know, should look at a career in our sector. It's a common theme from trade unions to say, look, you know, here are these unionized positions, and the trades and the construction trades. And then the operating trades are high paying jobs, they have great working conditions. And they're a great way to build people's career. And it's probably something that we haven't talked about for a long time. These are ways to highlight opportunities in the industry, apprentice programs on projects are another way to highlight opportunities to get people entering the workforce. And then finally, you can link back to our discussion on indigenous communities where training, education, employment opportunities associated with projects are available for residents in nearby communities. But that's as most project developers today would look at that as a key way to both build workforce, and to build economic capability in the, in the communities where they're doing work. It's a big challenge. And we certainly have to, you know, find ways to get people into the trains to get things done. We're going to be talking about this one a lot.
Dan Seguin 17:04
Now, I'm curious to find out what makes our hydropower unique, isn't our production generation water rich reserves, or our cold climate that sets Canada's hydropower apart from other countries?
Gilbert Bennett 17:20
So, first of all, we look at the resource that we have, we have 7% of the world's renewable freshwater. So, 7% of the water that falls on the face of the planet, lands in Canada, and we have 5% of the world's population. So those were important to have the raw resources in the first place. So that certainly we have that in spades, but also the large landmass, we have favorable topography for hydropower sites, so the right to the terrain and most of Canada is favorable to hydropower development. We're a large country with a small population, but lots of water. So, we have a great resource. And I think that that's probably the key reason why we've, you know, got to where we are.
Dan Seguin 18:08
Okay, that's good, Gilbert. Now, do you expect hydropower to remain Canada's largest source of reliable, renewable power for the foreseeable future? What is something you want the government to know right now about how investing in hydroelectricity can help it achieve its netzero goals?
Gilbert Bennett 18:32
Okay, so the first, the first most important point is that the attributes of your hydropower fleet, the technical capabilities are really important in continuing to ensure that electricity, services for customers are reliable, cost effective and renewable. Now, our future is going to be all in with every non emitting and renewable option. So hydro, wind, solar, nuclear, hydrogen, all of these alternatives to fossil fuels, and others are going to be critical for us to achieve our net zero, or near zero aspiration. Hydro today is the backbone of our fleet. It has important services, and it's important to glue the rest of the system together. So that's probably the most important point and then we would say that development of hydropower facilities are long term investments, they have long term development cycles. So we need to be able to find ways to move forward with project approvals with upgrades with expansions you know that deliver low cost service to customers. Now we also recommend with note that our generator members are either major utilities or their producers themselves. So, getting the maximum value from our assets is going to be really important as well and the industry is going to continue to look at existing assets to see how we can get more out of those. So that may be increasing the capacity of sites using, you know, improving efficiency, being strategic about where you know where projects get built. And then finally understanding where hydro fits compared to other technologies. And there's a given that there will be opportunities for those other technologies to play important roles in this electricity system as well. When we look at sort of doubling the electricity system, there's going to be a lot of investment all around. And I think what we would say is that, you know, back to the fundamental point, hydropower is the backbone of the generating fleet in Canada. And it provides, you know, key services that are going to be needed now, well into the future.
Dan Seguin 20:35
Finally, Gilbert, we always end our interviews with some rapid-fire questions. We've got some new ones for you. Are you ready?
Gilbert Bennett 20:44
Let's go. Okay.
Dan Seguin 20:46
What are you reading right now?
Gilbert Bennett 20:48
Nothing on the bookshelf today. So, I will say the last binge read I had was on vacation last summer, and it would have been one of Tom Clancy novels.
Dan Seguin 20:57
Okay, good. Now, Gilbert, what would you name your boat? If you had one? Or maybe you do have one?
Gilbert Bennett 21:04
I don't. We don't have one. This one is a standing family joke. The name of the boat would be Ylime, which is my daughter Emily's name spelled backwards. That's a standing joke for a while with the family.
Dan Seguin 21:18
Here's another question, Gilbert. Who is someone that you truly admire?
Gilbert Bennett 21:23
All right, so let's look back in history to someone who dealt with challenges on a similar scale to what we're talking about now. And I think I'd have to look to maybe someone like General Leslie Groves, from the Manhattan Project. So those of you have seen Oppenheimer would have a pretty clear handle about how he got things moving to that project.
Dan Seguin 21:46
Okay, moving on here. What is the closest thing to real magic that you've witnessed?
Gilbert Bennett 21:52
Oh wow. Okay, so I'm an electrical engineer. So, some real things are more like magic to a lot of people. I would say for me, 15 years of effort of the Muskrat Falls project in Labrador, close to the breaker to put the first unit online, looks like magic after all that effort.
Dan Seguin 22:11
What has been the biggest challenge to you personally, since the pandemic began?
Gilbert Bennett 22:18
Oh, well, I would say switching from a large office setting to a virtual team. And you know, of course, during my time on the Muskrat Project, we had, you know, 300 people on our team, and you're interacting with them on a daily basis. And now you go to a virtual team, and you're doing pretty well, everything like we're doing here today remotely. That was a major adjustment for me.
Dan Seguin 22:40
Okay. Now, we've all been watching a little more TV, a little more Netflix. What is your favorite show? Or series?
Gilbert Bennett 22:49
Oh, I just got through the last season of Slow Horses on Apple TV. So Misfits, that and MI five, who find a way to get things done. It was a pretty, pretty enjoyable series for me.
Dan Seguin 23:03
Lastly, what's exciting you about your industry right now?
Gilbert Bennett 23:08
Oh, wow. I would say in a nutshell, everything. Sort of the scope, the scale, the challenges, the opportunities that we've talked about, I think are all are all exciting, and helping to, you know, find a way to retool our, our entire society so that it runs on renewables, I think is a huge is a huge challenge. And it was definitely pretty exciting.
Dan Seguin 23:30
Well, Gilbert, this is it. We've reached the end of another episode of the think energy podcast. If our listeners want to learn more about you and your organization, how can they connect?
Gilbert Bennett 23:42
Oh, two ways. Visit our website waterpowercanada.ca. And we're on LinkedIn as well. So follow the association. And keep up with what's going on in the industry.
Dan Seguin 23:54
Again, Gilbert, thank you so much for joining me today. I hope you had a lot of fun. Cheers.,
Gilbert Bennett 23:59
Oh this was great. It was great to be with you Daniel. Thanks so much.
Dan Seguin 24:06
Thanks for tuning in for another episode of the think energy podcast. Don't forget to subscribe and leave us a review wherever you're listening. And to find out more about today's guests or previous episodes, visit thinkenergypodcast.com I hope you will join us again next time as we spark even more conversations about the energy of tomorrow.