Flying above the coast of Hudson Bay west of Churchill, in the furthest northern reaches of Manitoba, you pass over two rivers that offer diametrically opposed narratives on how humans can choose to interact with the natural environment.
Further to the west, the mighty Seal River flows unrestricted into the bay. Marking your proximity to the river’s mouth from above is the shine of the red tin roof of the remote, but brightly coloured, Seal River Wilderness Lodge. There isn’t another human-made mark visible on the horizon.
The Seal River watershed covers about 50,000 square kilometres, an area roughly the size of Nova Scotia, and is completely untouched. There are no roads, no mining or other industrial activities, and — most critically in northern Manitoba — no attempt to harness the river to create hydroelectricity.
The river remains a pristine and critical ecosystem for both wildlife and First Nations (and Inuit communities in Nunavut), which have formed an alliance to create an Indigenous protected area encompassing the watershed.
Flying 60 kilometres southeast along the coast in a helicopter, the mouth of the Churchill River is also clearly marked from above. This time with the star-shaped stone outpost — the Prince of Wales Fort.
The Churchill River has been manipulated by humans beyond recognition of what would have existed when the fort was built 250 years ago by Hudson’s Bay Co.
About 25 per cent of the river’s water has been diverted at Southern Indian Lake since the 1970s, according to Manitoba Hydro data, with that water redirected to the Nelson River, where the majority of Manitoba’s hydroelectricity is generated.
The diversion has and will continue to impact humans and wildlife across northern Manitoba for generations.
And yet, Manitoba is often touted as one of Canada’s shining examples in the climate crisis because of its surplus of low-carbon energy generated from dams dotted principally across the north.
Premier Brian Pallister has consistently argued Manitobans should catch a break on federal climate policies, such as the carbon tax, because of the province’s investments in hydro and the zero-emissions power it generates.
"Manitoba has a tremendous green record and we’ve invested more than any other province, for example, in hydro…. We’ve put billions of dollars at risk to green up the environment and we deserve respect for that," Pallister said in January 2020.
The federal Liberal government, both in its climate plan and most recent budget, has also pledged to continue investing in the expansion of hydro-generated power and to help support the export of hydropower to the United States.
But a chasm exists in the hydro-power debate between people who advocate the need to continue to pursue low-emissions energy and future hydro expansion and those who argue the devastating impact of hydro development can’t be ignored.
Les Dysart, the lead on hydro issues for O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation on the shores of Southern Indian Lake, says he’s tired of hearing about how clean and green hydropower is.
"It’s a misrepresentation of the facts," Dysart told the Free Press. "It’s hugely destructive to the environment, to the lakes and rivers of northern Manitoba. And in a sense, it’s destroying people and communities. It’s far from clean and green."
Meanwhile, at a press conference in February, Premier François Legault hinted at a possible end to hydro development in Quebec because of how cheap renewable alternatives had become.
"This has changed the game completely. Wind power is becoming a sector that’s hyper-competitive," Legault said. "I don’t think there are any new dam projects that could beat that cost."
For Manitobans, many questions remain. Where does Manitoba Hydro fit into a decarbonizing world? Does continuing to invest in hydropower make sense when other renewable, low-carbon energies are available at record-low costs? What about reconciliation with First Nations? And what other considerations must be involved?
These questions will soon be asked by the Pallister government; it is currently looking for a policy consultant to evaluate its energy strategy and to examine where to go in the future.
Tricia Stadnyk, an associate professor of hydrology at the University of Calgary who has worked with Hydro for years assessing water systems, says it is critical to recognize there will always be a cost to creating electricity — it’s just a matter of where and how it is paid.
"There’s going to be a cost to pay somewhere for the environment. It’s just a matter of assessing what that cost is, and how detrimental it is, and if there’s anything that we can do to mitigate it," she said.
But how Hydro is plotting its future remains a mystery. No representative was made available for this story to discuss the Crown corporation’s long-term strategic plan.
How do wind and solar power fit into the picture?
Eric Bibeau, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Manitoba, worked with Manitoba Hydro for a decade to explore how alternative renewable energies would fit into the company’s plans. But when he requested a third five-year term in 2018 to push solar-energy programs forward, the Crown utility shot down the idea, he said.
"I had a chair for 10 years with Manitoba Hydro, and I pushed for what should be at Manitoba Hydro, but nobody would listen," Bibeau told the Free Press.
The decision came as the cost of solar and wind power reached historic lows.
The International Energy Agency forecasts 95 per cent of electricity capacity added to grids globally between now and 2025 will be wind- and solar-generated, for no other reason than it has become the cheapest option.
"In countries where good resources and cheap financing are available, wind and solar plants will challenge existing fossil fuel plants. Solar projects now offer some of the lowest-cost electricity in history," the agency states in its most recent renewable energies report.
This is already bearing out in other Canadian provinces. In 2017, the Alberta government signed contracts with three wind producers to add 600 megawatts of generating capacity to their grid at the average cost of 3.7 cents per kilowatt-hour. By comparison, the average cost of electricity to Manitoba consumers is 9.9 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Manitoba, with only 200 megawatts of wind power capacity (and no solar to speak of), was primed for more development of alternative renewables — according to a 2016 report — yet none has occurred in the intervening years.
Instead, Hydro continued its pursuit of another dam on the Nelson River — Keeyask — which is expected to generate 695 megawatts of power annually.
When making its case before the Public Utilities Board in 2014 to build the now $8.7-billion generating station, Hydro downplayed the potential for investments in alternative renewable energies. At the time, Hydro suggested hydroelectricity was and would continue to be cheaper than wind power. Instead, the cost of hydropower from the project is roughly three times the cost of wind power on a per-kilowatt-hour basis. An exact estimate is impossible until the final costs associated with Keeyask are made public.
Despite those miscalculations and expert witnesses warning Hydro’s prediction was out of touch with the realities of the shifting market, the PUB approved Keeyask’s construction.
But there are no simple answers here.
Even though wind and solar power have fallen in price, hydropower remains a critical piece of the future green energy policy puzzle for all levels of government.
"We need to take a whole-system view of how these different technologies can play a role," said Brett Dolter, an assistant professor of climate and energy policy at the University of Regina.
"Wind and solar are low cost, in terms of their average generation cost — and that cost has fallen over time, quite substantially. But wind and solar don’t provide that dispatchable, reliable, firm backup capacity that you need. And that’s where hydro really does have the added value."
As a result, comparing the cost of hydro generation and wind or solar makes little sense, Dolter said. A fairer comparison is to something that is zero emissions and dispatchable.
"So how does it compare to nuclear? How does it compare to carbon capture and storage? And those are coming in around 12 to 14 cents a kilowatt-hour, or more, depending. So if you can beat those, then you’ve got a business case for hydro," Dolter said.
For Bibeau, who said his proposals for solar investments were often scoffed at during his decade with the utility, it was never a case of advocating for the end of hydro development.
What he would like to see is Hydro shift its focus outward to other provinces and states that are currently trying to green up their grids to combat climate change. Hydro, he said, could provide stable backup power for large swaths of the continent to support wind and solar power and a shift away from fossil fuels.
While some moves have been made in that direction, demand for hydropower exports has lagged thanks to the inexpensive option of natural gas, and now the plummeting cost of wind and solar. But with U.S. President Joe Biden’s pledge to have a carbon-free electricity grid by 2035, things are expected to soon change.
If infrastructure is expanded, Bibeau said, wind and solar both inside and outside of Manitoba could provide electricity during peak generation times, and, as needed, hydropower would back up all of the jurisdictions plugged into the network.
"At what point will Manitoba Hydro, in their business plan, accept solar as an advantage rather than try to compete against it? They’re not there. They’re just not there," Bibeau said.
In a statement from Manitoba Hydro, a spokesperson said, "It’s too early to speculate on the specific roles of wind and large-scale solar in our future energy mix, given we already have one of the cleanest, lowest-emitting power systems in North America."
What about exporting hydroelectricity?
It matters little whether greenhouse-gas emissions happen in Saskatchewan, Minnesota or here in Manitoba — it all still contributes to the same global problem.
To that end, some inter-jurisdictional power trading is already occurring, but not at the scale needed to eliminate fossil fuels from the grid, especially as demand for electricity increases with the electrification of the transport sector.
Manitoba Hydro collected $3.9 billion in revenues for electricity exports between 2010 and 2019 with the limited connections to neighbouring provinces and Minnesota.
In March, the Birtle Transmission Project (a jointly-funded project between the federal government and Saskatchewan and Manitoba governments) began sending hydropower west.
In June 2020, the Manitoba-Minnesota Transmission Project went into use, as well. When the original $4-billion, 15-year deal was inked by then-premier Greg Selinger in 2011, Minnesota Power representatives were already focused on how wind and hydro would fit together in a low-carbon future.
"When Minnesota Power transmits power northward, Manitoba Hydro will absorb it into its system, in essence storing the wind power, using the Manitoba system as a rechargeable battery," the utility said in a 2011 press release. "This wind-storage provision will allow Minnesota Power to balance its energy position and maximize the value of its wind resources."
Manitoba Climate and Conservation Minister Sarah Guillemard said further development of these transmission lines is in the works for the provincial government.
"I know that that’s the direction we’re looking at, the ability to export power to help other jurisdictions to come off of some of the other fuels that they’re using," Guillemard said.
"We do envision a future of us assisting other provinces that aren’t necessarily equipped with the renewable resources and energies that we have been blessed with here in this province."
However, the cost of building transmission lines is steep. University of Regina’s Dolter estimates the average cost of transmission-line scenarios to create an additional 1,000 megawatts of capacity between Manitoba Hydro and SaskPower at $1.8 billion, with $2.5 billion a high-end estimate. But if the goal is to reduce emissions, then the payoff is worth it, he said.
Carbon-free electricity goals, as well as the federal government’s plan to raise the carbon tax to $170 per tonne by 2030, will both make transmission lines hooking into hydro-dominant grids look better from a financial standpoint.
"As soon as the pressure goes up to stop relying on fossil fuels as the battery.… We’ve got to set a marriage. We’ve got to find a way of working together. So that’s why hydro is extremely important in the future. Very important. But yes, it’s also costly," Bibeau said.
What about reconciliation?
Fisher River Cree Nation, located about 200 kilometres north of Winnipeg, is currently home to the province’s largest solar farm. It is made up of 3,000 panels that have the capacity to generate up to one megawatt of energy, with excess fed back into the Manitoba Hydro grid.
The project is a source of empowerment and pride, said Fisher River Cree Nation Chief David Crate.
"In addition to generating revenue and training local workers in solar installation, we’re also starting a conversation about large-scale green energy," Crate said. "We want to show both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities that ambitious renewable energy projects are possible without further harming the environment."
It is a critical, yet rarely discussed, aspect of wind and solar power — it allows First Nations across the country to take control of their electricity generation.
Plans are in the works for other diesel-dependent off-grid communities in Manitoba to follow suit.
But these bright spots do little to distract from the pain felt by First Nations that witness the devastation to their traditional territory and food sources — mainly fish, caribou and other wildlife — as the cost of Hydro doing business.
In April, Shirley Ducharme and Doreen Spence, the chiefs of Manitoba’s O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation and Tataskweyak Cree Nation, respectively, described in a Free Press op-ed the ongoing destruction to their lands caused by the Churchill River Diversion and demanded a shift from the status quo ahead of a pending permit approval from the province.
"Though Manitobans benefit from the Churchill River Diversion every day, few people have seen it or know about the severe, widespread and ongoing harm it causes," they wrote.
Their plea fell on deaf ears. The Manitoba government granted a licence to Hydro to continue diverting the same amount of water from the Churchill to the Nelson River.
Les Dysart, the lead on hydro issues for O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, vowed the community would do all it could to ensure the jurisdictions importing Manitoba Hydro are aware of the real cost of that electricity.
"Northern Manitoba is in the backyard of everybody, you know? We don’t live in a vacuum. And all Canadians need to become aware of the realities of what’s going on," Dysart said.
"Manitoba Hydro has a vested interest in selling power to U.S. customers. They’re stakeholders in this. And there’s nothing wrong with us talking to other stakeholders."
Such tactics have proven effective in the past. In 2007, pressure from environmental groups resulted in a Minnesota energy bill that required Hydro to submit annual reports on the company’s social and environmental impacts.
"Manitoba Hydro should be a leader when it comes to working with Indigenous communities and when it comes to green energy, and they’re not," said Niki Ashton, the federal NDP MP of Manitoba’s northern riding of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski.
"For us in the north, there’s no question: everybody here knows that we need to get serious about climate change. Manitoba Hydro has a critical role to play and we’re simply not seeing that leadership," Ashton said.
Provincial Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, at a press conference earlier this month, went a step further and called out the provincial government’s failure to adequately consult and compensate First Nations for damages.
"If this were happening in southern Manitoba, there would be absolute outrage about the level of devastation that’s happened. But it’s often something that’s taken for granted — especially when it affects northern communities and, especially, First Nation communities," Lamont said.
"And that is Manitoba’s shame, frankly."
What about the next dam?
When Hydro requested permission to build Keeyask, it also sought approval to construct Conawapa, a second generating station. The PUB declined the latter bid, calling the possibility of export contracts to the United States too risky.
But it is only a matter of time before Hydro seeks approval to build another dam.
There is an opportunity to delay that request if the province starts to take energy-efficiency programming seriously, said Tom Akerstream, the former manager of Hydro’s now-defunct Power Smart program.
At the Keeyask hearings, considerable pause was given to how inadequate Hydro’s pursuit of lowering demand for electricity through efficiency programs had become.
"Demand-side management is a powerful tool, as it can defer the need for new generation, and has the potential to be as economic, if not more economic, than new generation," the PUB report read.
Manitoba was once a world leader in efficiency programming, when Akerstream helped create Power Smart in the early ‘90s, but the province now lags far behind other jurisdictions, the adjudicators found. The PUB demanded the Power Smart program be moved outside of Manitoba Hydro’s responsibility, which led to the creation of Efficiency Manitoba in 2016.
"The panel concludes that there is an inherent conflict in Manitoba Hydro being both a seller of electricity and a purveyor of energy-efficiency measures," the report said.
Akerstream said it was heartbreaking to see that energy-efficiency programming didn’t continue to advance after its early successes. Even with Efficiency Manitoba now acting as a separate entity, aggressive improvements in programming would be needed to delay the next ask for a future generation station, he said.
"It’s completely going in the wrong direction. And it’s disappointing, because they have so much potential to do so much more," he said.
How is hydro going to be affected by a changing climate?
More wildfires, more intense storms and increasing risks of precipitation extremes — from flood to drought — are local implications of climate change and all have the potential to affect Hydro operations.
A major argument for the development of Hydro’s Bipole III project, the $5-billion transmission line that runs along Manitoba’s western flank, was to ensure the province’s grid was secure in the face of these extremes. The province’s other two main transmission lines run alongside each other through the Interlake region. Because of their proximity, there is a higher risk of both being simultaneously compromised.
However, on the power-generation side, risks are well mitigated thanks to the diversity and number of watersheds that feed into Hudson Bay and fuel the hydro generating stations in the north.
"The chance of all of those basins having a drought in the same year is not very high unless we had some kind of Canada-wide drought," said University of Calgary’s Stadnyk.
The Churchill diversion, for all of its flaws, gives Hydro many levers to pull to manipulate the river system in worst-case scenarios, providing resiliency to the electricity system.
High-water years pose a greater risk, both to reducing power generation capacity and to the infrastructure, Stadynk said. "You never want to overtop your infrastructure or damage your spillways and things like that."
Manitoba Hydro has a hydroclimatic department that analyzes all risks posed by climate change to the Crown corporation’s operations. The Free Press requested an interview with the head of the department but the request was declined.
The big picture
Turning on your big-screen TV, running your dryer, charging your electric vehicle — all have a cost that goes beyond a monthly energy bill. That cost and who bears it is a choice political leaders must make.
The Seal River’s pristine ecosystem is an ideal example of an untouched environment.
But society’s demands mean not all can be left untouched. Where will the tradeoffs be made? And will northern First Nations be forced to bear the extra costs as southern urbanites greenwash the reality of how our lights turn on?
Demand for electricity will rise as the transportation sector and other parts of our lives are electrified to mitigate carbon emissions. How Hydro moves forward remains unclear.
"What is their strategic plan? What is their long-term vision? Like where do they see themselves going? How are they going to protect themselves against competition from other alternative energy sources? Where are they going to position themselves?" Akerstream said.
He’s eager for Manitoba Hydro to address these questions, but they have lingered unanswered for years.
Even though the province is seeking an energy analyst to help assess where it should be moving on this file, critics say Hydro executives have been steering the boat in the absence of guidance from elected officials.
"One of the biggest issues right now is that the current government doesn’t have an energy policy to speak of," said Adrien Sala, the NDP critic for Manitoba Hydro.
"So there’s no guide rails, Hydro is more or less left to its own devices to make decisions about their future strategy and their future direction. And so if we’re going to talk about the potential role of renewables or solar or wind in our Manitoba energy future, we need to first know what our energy requirements will be on a path to that net-zero energy future."
The province has also failed to evaluate what impact the electrification of transport or alternative heating sources will have, making it difficult to assess and understand Hydro’s role in the future, Sala said.
Turning on your big–screen TV, running your dryer, charging your electric vehicle ‐ all have a cost that goes beyond a monthly energy bill. That cost and who bears it is a choice political leaders must make.
"If we had a government that took these things seriously, that took the climate crisis seriously, they would be looking at these questions and they’d be determining whether or not hydro power can feasibly meet the required level of supply that we need.… The province could then create a coherent policy that would clarify the role of solar or clarify the role of wind in helping to meet energy demand, and then they could direct Manitoba Hydro accordingly."
Unlike in many other Canadian jurisdictions where electricity suppliers have taken the lead on implementing electric vehicle charging infrastructure and support programs, Manitoba Hydro continues to be absent.
"The potential to electrify its transportation sector and to lead the country in fighting climate change is great. Manitobans need government leadership on this pressing issue," wrote Lynne Fernandez for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in 2019 in a report titled Manitoba Hydro: The Long View.
"What Manitobans don’t need is another great hydro debate. Just as the province benefited from past development, we will, with the fullness of time, benefit from Keeyask and Bipole III. Were there mistakes made? Yes. But there was also progress: improving relationships with First Nations; less environmental damage and more community consultation; more upfront export contracts; improved reliability; and more job creation through partnerships with social enterprises and First Nation enterprises."
What is certain though, is a changing world will not wait for Manitoba Hydro to figure out its strategic plan forward.