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Muskrat Falls is getting a hydroelectric project.

Against the objections of local environmental and Inuit-Metis groups, the Federal Court has given the southern Labrador project a green light.

There’s some cognitive dissonance involved in watching environmental allies struggling against a form of renewable energy, but hydropower seems to occupy something of a middle ground between decentralized renewables and conventional energy sources. 

The source of the friction between hydropower advocates and protesters is not inherent to the technology; it’s the size that matters. The same technology can be shrunk down to form micro-hydropower projects, producing barely enough electricity to charge a cell phone and presenting little-to-no impact on the environment. A project like the Muskrat Falls dam, however, will cost $7.7 billion, occupy a large tract of land and alter the surrounding ecosystem in ways that are difficult to predict. Many of the same things can be said about fossil fuel plants. In fact, just about any project of that size would create the same set of problems.

The Muskrat Falls dam will have a capacity of 824MW: somewhere between that of a coal station and a nuclear plant and enough to power a quarter million homes. That’s a lot of cell phone charging potential and it explains why large hydropower projects often go ahead despite environmental concerns.

In a different part of the country, the Iqaluit City Council is currently considering a proposal to run the entire city on hydroelectricity within the decade. It’s hard to turn one’s back on that kind of potential.

Hydropower forces decisions out of environmentalists that we don’t otherwise often need to make.

A coal plant produces a lot of energy, but it is also unsustainable, disruptive to the surrounding ecosystem and harmful to the environment. Ditto natural gas and oil. There’s no need to even consider whether we should support these technologies when there are clean and sustainable options available. Dams produce clean energy, but many of the concerns endemic to these large projects mimic those raised about fossil fuels.

We have not developed a social algorithm for determining what kinds of dams we do and do not want to support. On the one hand, we get clean energy. On the other, potential environmental damage. It’s a problem without an obvious solution.

Ultimately, there are few sweeping statements we can make about the environmental benefits of hydroelectricity. Project by project, we can evaluate the environmental risks and determine whether they are outweighed by the benefits or whether another solution can be reached.

More broadly, it’s time to start thinking about our decision-making metric for renewable energy projects. How much hydroelectric energy is worth some environmental damage? Are we willing to trade disruption to a few communities for our clean energy? It falls to the environmental community to make these kinds of decisions, since there will always be project developers happy to make the Faustian bargain. Compounding the issue, hydroelectric dams represent the kind of large-scale project we will need in greater numbers if we’re going to power the world through renewable energy.

It might be argued that renewable energy’s value is limited if it abandons the human factor that separates it from the callousness of fossil fuel plants. Environmentalism in the 21st century is, in many ways, a movement for social change; many people are linking global environmental damage to a social system that values technological progress over human dignity.

It’s rarely possible to build without causing some level of inconvenience or harm to someone, but I don’t want to see those on either side of the debate holding all the cards when it comes time to sort out when, where and how dams should be built. Balance and respect for both the environment and human values will provide the framework on which we can work out our hydropower solutions.

I hope they can reach some middle ground in Labrador.

Next week, Stu addresses the potential of micro hydropower.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, currently working with Fern Ridge Landscaping and Eco-Consulting in Milton, Ontario.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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