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How the Giant Canadian Hydroelectric Market Is Making Room for Solar Energy
- Hydropower is Canada’s primary renewable energy source; however, solar energy is now the fastest-growing market. There is a need for both solar power and hydroelectricity to work together to create a powerful hybrid solution for the Canadian energy demand.
- Hydroelectricity is produced using a hydropower plant that uses the gravitational force of plummeting water from high altitudes or through the prospective energy of rivers with fast-flowing water.
- Solar energy is harnessed using solar cells, primarily photovoltaic (PV) cells, and converted using an inverter from direct current (DC) into an alternating current (AC). Due to solar technologies improving in efficiency and dropping in price, solar projects are being rolled out across Canada.
- Hydropower and solar power plants were developed separately in the past, but the two renewable technologies are starting to merge into photovoltaic-hydropower hybrid plants. This is done by installing floating solar panels on the water surface of hydropower reservoirs and the dam surface or installing solar panels on the downstream face.
Canada is presently one of the world’s top countries for using clean and renewable energy sources. In 2019, around 65% of the total electricity generation in Canada was sourced from hydro, solar, wind and other sources – such as geothermal, biomass, and tidal wave energy.
Out of all the renewable energy forms, hydropower remains Canada’s primary source of energy. It gets around 60% of all electricity from hydropower plants, but new renewable sources, such as solar and wind, now have the highest growth rate. According to the Canada Energy Regulator (CER), by 2035, the new renewable sources are projected to reach 12% of total power generation.
Canada is set up to allow each province and territory to have authority over its electrical power systems – all of which are pushing for improved renewable energy generation. Some are doing better than others, and hydropower remains the winner. Quebec obtains 97% of electricity generation from hydropower, and British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and Yukon systems are not far behind, relying on between 86% to 95% hydropower.
With hydropower dominating the Canadian renewable energy market, there is a need for cooperation between other green power sources. One of the most apparent partners is solar power. Compared to non-renewable sources, hydropower and solar power are renewable energy sources that offer notable benefits to the Canadian environment. However, each source comes with a set of distinct advantages and potentials – along with a few valid concerns.
Hydropower In Canada
Hydroelectricity is generated via a hydropower plant which uses the gravitational force of plummeting water from high altitudes or through the prospective energy of rivers with fast-flowing water.
Hydropower, or water power, is one of the world’s oldest energy sources. There is archaeological evidence that farmers used water wheels to grind wheat into flour as far back as ancient Greece. The kinetic energy produced by a flowing river turns the wheel, converting it into a mechanical form of energy that runs the mill.
Today’s hydropower technology is much more advanced, and we can harness the energy of moving water to produce electricity. Hydroelectricity is generated via a hydropower plant which uses the gravitational force of plummeting water from high altitudes or through the prospective energy of rivers with fast-flowing water.
A standard hydro plant system consists of three primary parts:
- An electric plant where the electricity is generated
- A dam to control the water flow
- A reservoir to regulate the energy extraction when needed
The amount of power generated from a hydro plant will depend on how far the water has to drop and the volume of water travelling through the system. This brings us to the pros and cons of hydropower in Canada, as hydropower has some substantial environmental impacts.
The pros of hydropower include:
- Compared to fossil fuels, it is a clean power source renewed by rainfall and snow – both of which are abundant in Canada.
- Hydropower plants can meet the fluctuating demand for power as they generate baseload electricity, and the amount can be adjusted.
- A hydroelectric generator can be switched off and on, making it one of the most responsive energy sources, adapting to the shifts in electricity demand, for example, during peak times.
- It produces substantial electricity without depending too much on climate conditions, air current flow or complex start-up processes.
- Once a hydro plant is built, the running and maintenance costs are not usually expensive as they are almost totally automated.
- Hydropower has a low failure record and a long lifespan of around 100 years.
The cons of hydropower include:
- Hydropower technology is geographically reliant – meaning a hydro plant must be close to a water supply.
- Although a renewable source, it has several environmental consequences, as damming the water and controlling the water flow causes considerable damage to river ecosystems.
- Hydro plants can cause migratory difficulties for marine species (specifically fish) and emit carbon dioxide during reservoir construction.
- There is a massive upfront cost for building a hydropower plant.
- The electricity generated from hydro sources depends entirely on water availability, so it may not be operational during drought.
- Hydropower plants operate only at high speeds, which results in a considerable modification to natural water resources.
Solar Power in Canada
PV solar panels have become an affordable renewable source and offer a low-carbon technological innovation that effectively utilizes sustainable energy from the sun.
Solar power is one of the fastest-growing renewables in Canada. This type of energy is endless and comes from the sun, a colossal energy source. Solar energy is harnessed using solar cells, primarily photovoltaic (PV) cells, and converted using an inverter from a direct current (DC) into an alternating current (AC).
The cost of photovoltaic electrical power has dropped over recent years, which has led to the rise in the adoption of grid-connected solar PV modules. PV solar panels have become an affordable renewable source and offer a low-carbon technological innovation that effectively utilizes sustainable energy from the sun. As with hydroelectric power, solar power has its pros and cons.
The pros of solar energy include:
- Solar energy is deemed one of the most eco-friendly power generation sources – it produces no harmful gas emissions or pollution, nor any substantial risk to wildlife.
- The solar systems can be installed almost anywhere, so they can be set up in some of the most remote locations in Canada – where there is no electrical grid or persistent power-cut problems.
- Solar power is a cost-effective solution to switching from fossil fuels – the system itself is not expensive, and once installed, it requires very little maintenance.
- Solar power plants are space-efficient and can be installed on rooftops in densely populated areas.
- Solar panels have a decent life cycle of 20 years plus and do not need to be manually monitored.
The cons of solar power include:
- There are intermittency problems limiting solar photovoltaic cells considering the reduced daylight hours during the winter months in Canada – solar panels are entirely dependent on the sun as a light source to generate power.
- The generated solar energy has to be used right away or stored in a battery, but these can be expensive.
- Depending on the climatic and geographical factors, the output and efficiency differ from region to region in Canada.
- Solar power is sometimes linked to pollution due to the required transportation and installation of solar systems, which can cause greenhouse gas emissions.
How Hydropower and Solar Power Can Work Together
Through installing PV plants on the hydropower site, it safeguards natural land from being used for solar farm installations, protects the dams through insulation, and increases hydropower generation by reducing water evaporation.
Conventionally, hydropower and solar power plants have been developed separately. However, the two renewable technologies have recently started to merge into photovoltaic-hydropower hybrid plants. This is done by installing floating solar panels on the water surface of hydropower reservoirs and the dam surface.
Photovoltaic-hydropower hybrid plants support one another and are cost-effective. Installing PV plants on the hydropower site safeguards natural land from being used for solar farm installations, protects the dams through insulation and increases hydropower generation by reducing water evaporation.
A significant shortfall for hydropower plants is the amount of reservoir water lost through evaporation – the turbine cannot use the evaporated water to generate energy. For solar power plants, their shortfall includes requiring large open areas, and warming panels reduce their efficiency. Appropriate space is needed for solar power installations as it is projected to continue growing at a rapid pace in Canada in the following decades.
The benefits of floating solar panels on hydropower reservoirs include:
- Land use is minimized.
- The water below the panels keeps the solar panels cool – which increases panel efficiency.
- Solar panels provide shading on the water, which helps reduce algae growth and water evaporation – leading to improved hydro energy generation and water quality.
- The water surface is an excellent location for optimum solar power generation as the area is free of shading objects with higher sunlight reflection.
There is another option for photovoltaic-hydropower hybrid plants, which involves installing solar panels on the downstream face. This option, however, is only feasible in certain plants where the facing slope of the dam is below 40° (such as gravity and embankment dams).
The benefits of solar being installed on the sides of hydro plants include:
- Solar panels are great at protecting the dam surface from direct solar radiation, which can adversely impact the stability of the dam itself – the panels can help reduce thermal excursion of the dam surface and improve dam durability.
- Installing solar panels on an existing structure (such as dam surfaces) reduces the land needed for energy production.
- The energy produced by the solar panels can supply the hydro plant with electricity, for example, to run their pumps.
- Compared to an equivalent installation on a flat area, solar panels mounted on an inclined area minimize the required distance between each panel, increasing overall solar energy production.
In hybrid systems, many benefits can be achieved for operating solar and hydro plants independently. Hydro plants are usually easy to access and are already grid-connected, meaning installing solar panels requires less work and infrastructure than setting up on a brand new site of its own.
There is no single renewable energy source that works best all the time and in every scenario across Canada. Hydropower and solar power both have a greater or lesser impact on the environment and distinctive upsides and downsides. By intertwining the two, they can make up for their inefficiencies.
Although hydropower is considered a more reliable energy source than solar, it is not appropriate in as many locations as solar power is. Both renewable sources need to be optimized for their surroundings, and they can help one another. Solar power and hydropower can work together to provide additional support during the darker and dryer months.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is hydropower used for?
Hydropower is used as a renewable energy alternative to fossil fuels. It has many advantages as it is a green source of power, and hydropower plants can instantly generate energy for the grid. Hydropower provides vital power backup during electricity outages or disruptions. Hydropower also provides benefits beyond renewable electricity generation in some cases, including flood control, irrigation support, and clean drinking water.
Is hydropower better than solar power?
Both have pros and cons, but hydropower is considered a more stable and reliable source of electricity than solar power. Solar power generation is at its best when the sun is at its peak and during long hours of sunlight. Once the sun sets, solar power systems have no more energy to draw from. There is much more opportunity for solar power installations as hydropower is limited by its huge upfront investment cost and land mass required to build a hydropower plant.
Is hydropower bad for the environment?
Although hydropower does not pollute the water or the air, hydropower facilities can have some significant environmental impacts. They can change the environment and affect land use, homes, and natural habitats in the dam area. In addition, when vegetation decomposes underwater, both carbon dioxide and methane are released.
Which country has the most hydropower?
Although Canada is one of the global leaders in hydropower, China is currently at the top of the leaderboard for generation, capacity, and new developments. Respectively, China and Canada hydropower generation totalled 1,302 terawatt-hours and 398 terawatt-hours in 2019.
How much of Canada’s energy is renewable?
It is estimated that Canada acquired 16.3% of its energy supply from renewable sources in 2018. For comparison, on average, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries got 10.5% of their energy supply from renewable sources, while the world average was 13.4%. Thus, Canada is truly doing its part to move away from fossil fuels.