Wind and solar power continue to grow, offering decarbonized electricity but with the limitations of intermittency. In contrast, hydroelectric power is a mature industry in Canada that provides reliable power across many regions of the country.

Hydropower is the second-largest renewable source of generation in the United States, behind wind, but still accounts for less than 10% of total annual power generation in the country, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. The picture in Canada is strikingly different: approximately 60% of its electricity is generated from hydro sources.

As a counterbalance to intermittent renewables, hydro can offer dependable load balancing and can be ramped up and down to meet systemwide needs. But that depends on the continued dependable operation of aging facilities. With over 500 waterpower facilities from coast to coast, many of them operating for 40-50 years or more, keeping those facilities operational is critical to the future growth and reliability of renewable power.

Aspects of Plant Life Extension

The hydro industry in Canada is now pursuing a series of modernization projects to extend the lives of existing facilities. Such projects represent an investment in both baseload energy capability and supplemental generation support as technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are deployed throughout the nation’s power portfolio.

These modernization efforts run the gamut from electrical and controls upgrades to turbine and generator overhauls or replacements, as well as other equipment, facility and civil infrastructure improvements. Through modernization and life extension projects, supported with ongoing maintenance, these assets can be valuable, reliable generation contributors for another 30+ years.

Each location will have unique considerations in determining whether modernization efforts make sense, but decommissioning of hydro facilities can be a significant undertaking because of environmental factors. Combined with ongoing demand for reliable power, there are strong motivations for making capital investments to extend the lives of hydro plants.

Planning the optimal upgrades and managing those projects from concept through completion can be a drain on limited utility resources. Working with the right partners who can provide everything from front-end advisory services to the reassurance of full-service integrated engineer-procure-construct (EPC) project delivery can fill this void.

Designed to Balance Intermittency

The Canadian government has set a goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Hydropower is already a major contributor to that objective, but it is not enough on its own, not to mention that different regions have differing access to the necessary water resources for hydropower. Intermittent renewables will rely on other dependable sources to cover energy demand when those renewables are dormant.

Hydropower will continue to play a vital role in the Canadian power portfolio as the country progresses through its energy transition. Maintaining hydro facilities as viable sources of power supply is an investment that can pay off for years to come.


Hydroelectric power plant developers have the potential to create operational efficiencies during construction that earlier generations could scarcely imagine. Proactive project controls systems are central to their success.

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Darcy Wagner, MBA, leads Burns & McDonnell power operations across Canada, partnering with clients to make them successful in the development, engineering, procurement and construction of power plants and infrastructure.