Around the world, hydropower is branded as fresh and clean. The natural, flowing image above – from the cover of a Canadian Hydropower Association publication – is typical of hydro branding. (Manitoba Hydro is a CHA member.)
But on the ground, images of hydro are not always clean. The above scene is a common sight on Sipiwesk Lake, part of the hydro-affected Nelson River system. Unnatural water fluctuations cause shorelines to erode when water is high, and leave the shoreline debris-strewn and despoiled when water goes back down (pictured).
Canada's largest hydro producer uses attractive, environmentally benign images of its projects, most of which are far removed from public view. The image above is the cover of Hydro Quebec's 2006 annual report.
Photo by David Ziegler / flickr (Creative Commons), 2009
In Manitoba, two of the most common terms used by the utility to describe hydropower are "renewable" and "clean." But defining these terms is a messy business. The pristine image on the Manitoba Hydro mural above does not reflect everyone's experience of hydro.
Photo by Mike_tn / flickr (Creative Commons), 2007
The claim that hydro is clean rests largely on the fact that, according to the Canadian Hydropower Association, greenhouse gas emissions from hydro dams in Canada "are at least 60 times less than those from coal fired plants," such as this one in Tennessee.
But just because dams don't have carbon-spewing smoke stacks doesn't necessarily mean they are clean. Can the power produced be cleaner than the water that runs through the dams? Here, cleaner, darker water from an unaffected waterway enters the murky waters of the Nelson River system.
While hydro generation in Manitoba is clean in some respects it also contributes to the permanent flooding of "more than 2,600 square kilometers of land" (1991 Government of Manitoba report). This photo is of flooded forest upstream of the Jenpeg Dam.
Collapsing shoreline after the flooding of Southern Indian Lake in the 1970s. "In energy lingo 'clean energy' seems to imply that [hydro] is harmless. This energy isn't harmless. You are invited to visit my community and witness clean, harmless energy in the making. "There are externalities everywhere:... water quality, erosion, floating debris and islands, despair, hopelessness." – Chris Baker, Headman/Chief, O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation (at South Indian Lake), 2004
Many islands have eroded right off the map due to unnatural water fluctuations. The one pictured is in the process of disappearing. As the global hydro industry seeks to portray hydro as a clean and green environmental solution, good public policy must be informed by a complete picture of hydro's pros and cons.