The cost of green power

We need to understand environmental and social implications of our power needs.

by Holly Lahd

What happens when the cultures of indigenous peoples are confronted by the demand for inexpensive power from U.S. electricity consumers? The entangled past and future expansion of large-scale hydropower in Manitoba demands attention to this question from Minnesota policymakers and energy consumers.

North of Minnesota lies the Canadian Province of Manitoba – a land prized for its abundant sources of water. Hydropower dams were built in the region in the 1960s and ’70s and promoted as a cheap power that could stimulate Manitoba’s economy. But large-scale hydropower is far from the clean, renewable properties of wind.

The landscape of the Churchill and Nelson rivers in Manitoba – where these hydro dams are located – are not dominated by deep gorges and valleys, which provide an area to contain the flooding upstream of the dam. Instead, the water floods outwards, flooding parts of the habitat-rich boreal forests of Canada and affecting the five Cree First Nations who live in the area. Also, these communities experience safety concerns from the large water level fluctuations from when the dams’ reservoirs contain and release the water to generate power. Fallen and decaying trees litter the shores from decades of shoreline erosion.

This scene of environmental devastation is integrally linked to energy issues in Minnesota since Xcel Energy, a leading supplier of electricity in the state, currently receives 8-10 percent of its power from hydropower – the vast majority of it coming from Manitoba Hydro.

Xcel Energy recently unveiled their new long-term energy forecast, where they call for an additional 375 megawatts of electricity from Manitoba Hydro to back up wind development in the Upper Midwest.

And, with Xcel Energy’s newest commitment to hydro in Manitoba, Manitoba Hydro officials are jumpstarting plans for another dam, named Conawapa, that could power 420,000 homes if completed. This is in addition to the already underway construction of the Wuskwatim Dam, a 200 megawatt project.

The issue of more hydro development has splintered these First Nation communities – with some embracing the new agreements as needed economic projects and others remembering the old wounds from the original Northern Flood Agreement with Manitoba Hydro that devastated their lands and left broken promises. This expansion sets the stage for a new generation of Cree Leaders to negotiate for their property rights, now with decades of hydropower memories with them.

If we’re willing to be the beneficiaries of this hydropower source, we need to understand the environmental and social implications of our power needs. In our need for solutions to global warming, let’s not turn a blind eye to the problems of large-scale hydro.

Is it equitable to transfer the burden of our power needs to disproportionably affect these communities? Determine the answer for yourself at 7 p.m. this Thursday. The Bell Museum of Natural History is hosting a special screening and reception for the film “Green Green Water,” a documentary by local filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson on the issue.

Although hydro has the power to supply our energy needs, it is already well documented that it has more than enough power to divide communities.

Holly Lahd welcomes comments at [email protected]