Why Does B.C. Use Hydro Power?

British Columbia has long relied on hydroelectric power as its main source of electricity generation. According to the Canada Energy Regulator, about 87% of electricity in B.C. is produced from hydroelectric sources as of 2021 (Canada Energy Regulator). B.C. has around 16,000 MW of hydroelectric capacity, most of which comes from large-scale reservoir facilities (BC Hydro). Hydroelectricity provides the province with reliable, renewable baseload power that supports economic development and growth.

Abundant Water Resources

British Columbia has abundant water resources that are ideal for hydroelectric power generation. BC is home to over 90% of Canada’s and around 16,000 megawatts of hydroelectric capacity. This is thanks to BC’s vast network of rivers and streams that provide ample water flow. The province has one of the largest hydroelectric systems in North America, with major facilities on rivers like the Columbia, Peace and Campbell.

british columbia has abundant water resources ideal for hydroelectric power generation

BC’s abundant water resources, including its many lakes that can provide storage reservoirs, make it an ideal region for harnessing hydroelectricity. The high volumes of water flow allow for the generation of reliable, low-cost baseload power from hydro dams across the province.

Clean and Renewable

British Columbia’s hydroelectric dams provide a clean and renewable source of electricity for the province. Hydroelectricity produces very low emissions compared to electricity generated from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. While dams do have some emissions from the decomposition of organic matter in reservoirs, these emissions are minimal compared to the greenhouse gases released from burning coal and gas.

In 2018, hydroelectricity accounted for over 90% of the total electricity generated in BC. With abundant hydro resources, the province can rely on renewable hydro power and avoid building new coal or gas plants. BC’s grid has among the lowest greenhouse gas emission intensity in North America. Expanding hydroelectric capacity allows the province to electrify sectors like transportation and heating while still maintaining a clean electricity supply.

Reliable Baseload Power

Hydroelectric dams are able to provide a steady and reliable source of electricity, known as baseload power. This is because the flow of water that drives the turbines is relatively constant over time, allowing for consistent electricity production around the clock1. Unlike intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar power, hydro does not rely on weather conditions and can operate at maximum output whenever needed.

BC Hydro’s network of hydroelectric facilities across the province are optimized to meet electricity demand at all times. The reservoirs behind the dams store water that can be used to generate electricity on demand, while run-of-river facilities take advantage of consistent water flows to provide a steady supply. This combination allows BC Hydro to match generation to consumption patterns and provide reliable baseload power for the provincial grid2.

History and Expertise

British Columbia has over 50 years of experience building and operating hydroelectric facilities. BC Hydro was created in 1961 when the government passed the BC Hydro Act, leading to the consolidation of various private power companies into one provincial Crown corporation (History). Since then, BC Hydro has developed considerable expertise in hydropower, gaining over five decades of knowledge managing complex, large-scale hydro projects across the province.

Some of BC Hydro’s major milestones include commissioning the Portage Mountain Dam in 1964, starting up the massive Gordon M. Shrum generating station at W.A.C. Bennett Dam in 1967, and completing the Revelstoke Dam in 1984, which was the largest hydro project ever undertaken in the province at the time (BC Hydro). Today, BC Hydro operates 31 hydroelectric facilities and over 79,000 km of transmission and distribution lines.

With such extensive experience developing clean, renewable hydropower resources, BC has established itself as a world leader in hydro project planning, construction, and operations.

Economic Benefits

BC Hydro’s hydroelectric projects and assets provide substantial economic benefits to the province of British Columbia. Hydroelectricity creates jobs and export revenue for the province.

According to a BC Hydro report, the Site C hydroelectric project alone will create over 10,000 jobs during construction and contribute $5.3 billion to the provincial GDP over the life of the project [1]. Hydroelectricity enables the province to export surplus clean electricity to neighboring jurisdictions like Alberta and California, generating over $1 billion in annual trade revenue [2]. The BC government has stated that clean hydroelectricity will play a key role in electrifying the economy and reducing emissions as part of its CleanBC plan [3].

In summary, hydroelectric projects create jobs for British Columbians and provide export opportunities that generate substantial economic benefits for the province.

Environmental Impacts

Hydroelectric dams can have significant effects on the environment and ecosystems around them. Building large dams floods valleys and blocks fish migration routes, disrupting the habitat and spawning grounds of many fish species like salmon (Environmental Impacts of Hydro Power, 2010). Dams also change the natural variability of river flows downstream, impacting riparian habitats. One major concern is that climate change may alter precipitation and glacier melt patterns in BC, affecting the river flows that supply hydropower reservoirs, potentially exacerbating environmental impacts in drier years (POTENTIAL IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON …).

BC Hydro implements mitigation strategies like minimum flow requirements, habitat compensation projects, and fish ladders to help reduce the impacts of its facilities on fish populations and aquatic ecosystems (Environmental responsibility). But environmental groups argue more could still be done to protect sensitive fish habitats from disruption by existing and proposed hydro projects.

First Nations Considerations

The relationship between First Nations and hydroelectric development in BC is complex. Many new and existing hydroelectric projects impact First Nations territories and rights. There has been opposition from some First Nations groups over projects like Site C dam. However, the BC government has also negotiated agreements with First Nations for revenue sharing and benefits from hydro projects.

For example, in 2022 the Province reached a settlement with West Moberly First Nations related to Site C which provides financial compensation, contracting opportunities, and protection of culturally important sites (Government of BC, 2022). BC also has a First Nations Clean Energy Business Fund to support capacity, equity and revenue sharing from clean energy projects, including hydro (Government of BC, 2022).

In 2023, BC agreed to provide approximately $50 million annually from Columbia River Treaty revenues to three First Nations as part of a new sharing agreement (The Globe and Mail, 2023). While there are ongoing tensions, there is also growing collaboration and benefits sharing between First Nations, BC Hydro and the provincial government.

Comparisons to Alternatives

BC Hydro power compares favorably to other renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and tidal in several ways. Hydroelectric dams provide reliable, schedulable baseload power, while solar and wind are intermittent sources dependent on weather conditions. Tidal power has advantages in predictability over solar and wind, with daily cycles of high and low tides, but tidal turbines have much higher upfront capital costs compared to hydroelectric dams according to Comparing Tidal Power in B.C. and Nova Scotia. Hydroelectric can also store energy via pumped storage between an upper and lower reservoir.

However, BC is blessed with many potential tidal and wind resources that could complement hydroelectric generation. As noted by Why is BC Hydro blocking a renewable revolution?, pumped hydro storage could be used to store excess renewable energy from tidal, wind, and solar sources to create a 100% renewable electricity system. More diversification of renewables could hedge against climate change impacts on BC’s hydroelectric capacity.


The use of hydro power is widespread in British Columbia due to the province’s abundant water resources from mountain snowmelt and rainfall. Hydro power provides a reliable, renewable source of electricity that serves as baseload power for BC’s grid. The existing dams and reservoirs enable the flexible generation needed to meet changing energy demands.

With over 50 years of expertise in hydroelectric development, BC has become a world leader in clean and sustainable hydro technology. The hydroelectric projects provide significant economic benefits through energy exports, local employment, and revenue for the province. However, the environmental impacts of flooding valleys and diverting water flows have raised concerns that are still being addressed.

Going forward, hydro power will continue serving as the backbone of British Columbia’s electricity supply. But future projects will need to balance energy needs with environmental sustainability and agreements with First Nations. Overall, the abundance of water resources gives BC a distinct advantage for meeting electricity demand through renewable hydro power.

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