by Conor Mihell

The Ontario Power Authority (OPA), the province’s electricity planning agency, has set its sights on the Albany River, a wild waterway flowing for 980 kilometres through the boreal region of northwestern Ontario and into James Bay. The OPA is proposing the construction of two generating stations that would be capable of feeding nearly 1,000 megawatts of electricity into the grid by 2022. By comparison, Ontario’s largest hydroelectric generating station, Sir Adam Beck 2 at Niagara Falls, produces just over 1,200 megawatts.

While the Albany River has long been a candidate for water power – the river was explored for hydro potential first in the 1940s and again in the 1980s – the recent plans came in response to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s push for new energy sources. Last summer, an OPA report called for 3,000 additional megawatts of hydroelectricity – about the equivalent of the power produced by one nuclear generating station. The provincial government lists hydro as “one of the cleanest sources of power” available to fuel a power-hungry population – most of whom live in southern Ontario.

Some environmentalists, however, disagree with the government’s description. Janet Sumner, executive director of CPAWS Wildlands League, says that damming the Albany River would cause widespread ecological degradation in pristine boreal forest and lowland habitat. Thousands of square kilometres of peatland would be flooded, and reservoirs would likely become tainted with the methyl mercury, released by decomposing vegetation, which in turn would contaminate fish and the humans that eat them.

Caroline Schultz, executive director of Ontario Nature, points out that meeting the province’s energy needs and reducing its dependence on nuclear and coal generating stations will require compromise. Schultz says that this means an energy supply scenario based on stringent conservation measures, demand management and renewable energy sources, including hydroelectricity.

“If we are going to properly map out a more sustainable path for Ontario’s power supply system, some tough decisions need to be made,” Schultz notes. “We need in-depth analysis of the impacts of potential projects so that we can evaluate them in the context of proposed energy plans for the province.”