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How Green is Hydroelectric Power?

By: Sharlene Nguy

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Niagara Falls is famously known to be one of the natural wonders of the world where people from different places come to visit. Though, what some people may not know is that the water is used to create hydroelectric power. Hydroelectric power is classified as renewable energy since it relies on the Earth’s natural water which is a constantly replenishing resource.

Located in Niagara Falls is Sir Adam Beck (SAB) hydroelectric power generating complex which consists of two power generating stations: Sir Adam Beck I and Sir Adam Beck II. This complex is owned by the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) which is one of the largest electricity producers in Canada that provides around 70% of Ontario’s electricity annually.

How this is done is that it takes the water from the Niagara and Welland river (above Niagara Falls) and diverts it to the lower area of Niagara River. By diverting water from a higher elevation, it enables the water from the falls to fall through tunnels and flow down towards the rotating blades of the turbines. The rotating blades are connected to electromagnets of the generators which then creates electricity.

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While this idea of renewable hydroelectric power is viewed in a better light than non-renewable resources like fossil fuels that emit toxic gases to the environment and humans, hydroelectric power also contributes to negative environmental impacts. Though hydroelectricity is not as detrimental to the environment as non-renewable resources, we must remember that every industry emits emissions whether it is direct or indirect and unintentional. Hydroelectricity is not a solution that stops climate change but is a solution that helps slow down climate change.

There are different variations to generate hydroelectricity, three different types are Run-of-river hydroelectricity (ROR), Pumped-Storage hydroelectricity (PSH), and Reservoir hydroelectricity. ROR is where the water is not stored or dammed, the normal course of the river is not altered in any way. PSH converts excess electrical energy into stored energy by pumping the water vertically into a storage pond for later use. Reservoir hydroelectricity utilizes a man-made dam to store water from a river. The water is released and flows through a turbine which then produces electricity.

Research on dams has shown specifically that this method causes more environmental damage. Creating dams requires flooding water in a reservoir that contains ecosystems and organic life (fish). This depletes the oxygen in the area which causes the organic matter to decay and emit methane.  It is shown that dams emit 25% of methane into the atmosphere, methane is known to be 25 times more detrimental than carbon dioxide. Creating dams requires flooding water in a reservoir that contains ecosystems and organic life (fish). This depletes the oxygen in the area which causes the organic matter to decay and emit methane.  

Additionally, hydroelectric power in general impacts fishes as it reduces the downstream quality and altering water temperature. This causes injuries to fish and creates an environment where fishes cannot thrive. By diverting water, it causes disruption of natural river flows by removing water that is needed for healthy in-stream ecosystems. Fish species like salmon demand a steady flow and guide as they require their environment to be a specific way. Furthermore, bacteria that derive from decaying organic matter can alter the levels of mercury shown in rocks that are in the water. Eventually, this causes an accumulation of mercury in fishes and becomes a hazard for those who consume the fish.

Returning back to Niagara Falls, hydroelectric power is in a sense glorified as a renewable source. In school, students are not taught about the detrimental environmental impacts that derive from deriving electricity from water. So, the truth behind hydroelectric power is that it is not what it is made up to be. As mentioned, we must remember that every industry emits emissions whether it is direct or indirect and unintentional.

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