In Quebec, almost 100% of the energy produced comes from renewable energy1. This situation has been made possible by the very particular configuration of the province, but also thanks to strong political choices since the 1960s. The thousands of rivers, the huge boreal forests and the great wind capacity found in Quebec have largely contributed to the ecological production of its energy. We look back at the history of renewable energy up to the present day.
The first part of our series: the origins of electricity, the appearance of the first monopolies and the development of hydroelectricity and Hydro-Québec.
1878 – 1879 : The Origins of Electricity
In 1878, the Paris World Fair brought to light a new method of creating light; electric lighting. This “electric candle” or arc lamp was invented by Pavel Jablochov, a Russian engineer living in Paris. A young engineer from Montreal called J.-A. -I. Craig attended the event. Fascinated by this innovation, he brought the concept of the arc lamp back to Montreal.
The same year, the American Thomas Edison invented and popularized the incandescent lamp. Thanks to this invention, he came up with the idea of a power-generating station that would serve the final consumer through a distribution network.
Pioneer of the concept of “virtual energy pipeline”, we owe him the development of electricity all over the world and until today.
1884 – 1892 : Establishment and application of electricity in Quebec
At the end of the 19th century, the race for lighting between gas and electricity was raging. The American Royal Electric Company established its presence in Montreal and succeeded in completely displacing gas as a method of street lighting. Thus, starting in 1889, Montreal saw the introduction of electric lighting throughout the city.
Elsewhere in Quebec, the battle between gas and electricity was just as fierce. On September 30, 1885, the Quebec & Levis Electric Light Company pulled off a spectacular communication coup by lighting the Dufferin Terrace in Quebec City with 34 arc lamps. And for the first time in North America, it was a hydroelectric power station that powered these lamps! Located several dozen kilometres from Quebec City, the Sault-Montmorency power station made history.
In 1890, the first electric streetcars appeared in Montreal and then in other Quebec cities, notably Trois-Rivières and Sherbrooke. These “little electric carts” replaced the horse-drawn streetcars. Pioneers of electric mobility, these new forms of transportation changed the daily lives of Quebecers, allowing them to work farther and farther away from their homes.
1900 – 1940 : Powerful regional monopolies
Creation of Shawinigan Water and Power
Created in 1897, the Shawinigan and Power Company (SW&P) quickly began to focus on hydroelectricity. A young engineer from Boston named Julian C. Smith came up with the idea of using the Saint-Maurice River for power generation. This had turned into a technical success and the keystone of the financial success of the Shawinigan Water and Power Company (SW&P).
The “Shawi” as it was colloquially known, depended on utilizing the full potential of the Saint-Maurice despite its distance from the major consumer centers. At the beginning of the 20th century, the construction of the first hydroelectric power station on the Saint-Maurice commenced, located about 30 km north of Trois-Rivières. Remarkable both for their ingenuity and their architecture, eight power stations ensure the exploitation of the full potential of the river.
Within 50 years of operation, the Shawinigan built an empire, participated in the development of the city through attracting high electricity consuming industries such as pulp and paper, aluminum, and chemical production.
Formation of the Montreal Light, Heat and Power (MLH&P)
On March 28, 1901, the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company was formed through the merger of two companies and their subsidiaries, the Montreal Gas Company and the Royal Electric Company. Its president, Herbert Samuel Holt, succeeded in merging the traditional competitors (gas and electricity) and laying the foundations of a future industrial and financial empire. The Rivière-des-Prairies power station and the Beauharnois power station (a powerful and elegant art-deco building) were among the major achievements of the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Consolidated.
The Shawinigan and Power Company and Montreal Light, Heat and Power both participated in the creation of a monopoly that would share the territory of Quebec for the production and distribution of electricity in the first quarter of the 20th century.
1906 : The “Ontario model” is welcomed in Québec
The first signs of nationalization were the need to regulate the monopolies of electricity production, transport and distribution. Under the leadership of Adam Beck (a major business and political influencer), the Ontario legislature passed a law creating the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario (HEPCO) or Ontario Hydro. Initially, the organization was simple: the private sector would produce electricity, the Commission would manage transmission, and the municipalities would manage distribution.
The “Ontario model” finds a home in the Belle Province as several cities choose to municipalize their electricity distribution networks.
1922 : The Alcan Company in Lac-Saint-Jean
Under the supervision of William Price and James Duke, a project to develop the Saguenay River was born. The two industrialists and financiers joined forces to install a powerful hydroelectric power station on Île Maligne, located at the head of the river.
With the development of their pulp and paper mills and aluminum plants, the need for energy became unavoidable. To meet Alcan’s growing demand, several hydroelectric plants were built: Chute-à-Caron, Shipshaw, Chute-du-Diable, Chute-à-la-Savanne and Chute-des-Passes.
1926 : The Gatineau River Exploitation
The Gatineau Power Company was formed to install and operate power plants on the Gatineau and Ottawa Rivers. With the support of the Canadian International Paper Co., the Gatineau Power Company established and acquired all the existing small power plants on the Ottawa River and its tributaries to supply the pulp and paper industry.
1930 – 1944 : Paradigm shift: nationalization of electricity
While electricity monopolies have contributed to the economic development of entire regions, they have been criticized for their commercial behaviour: usurious rates, lack of service, exorbitant profits or refusal to offer their services in rural areas.
Due to the economic crisis of the early 1930s, unemployment was on the rise, activity was decreasing, and there were more and more protests against the “electricity trust”. In 1934, under the guidance of Alexandre Taschereau’s Liberal government, Ernest Lapointe set up a commission of inquiry to assess the industry’s actions. In its report, the commission condemned the lack of regulation of the electricity market and recommended the creation of a regulatory authority with greater powers than the Public Utilities Commission.
In the wake of the Lapointe Commission, several regulatory bodies followed one another without notable success. One by one, they were confronted with the lack of cooperation from the monopolies, in particular with the powerful Montreal Light, Heat and Power.
When Quebec Prime Minister Adélard Godbout came to power in 1939, he condemned the inefficiency of this private system dominated by anglophone interests, and the alliances between Montreal Light, Heat and Power (MLH&P) and Shawinigan Water and Power. Accused of slowing down the industrial development of the region, this monopoly is threatened as early as 1943 with the request for nationalization of Montreal Light Heat & Power.
1944 : The birth of hydro-Québec
On Friday, April 14, 1944, after the stock market closed, the Liberal government of Adélard Godbout passed the Act establishing the Quebec Hydro-Electric Commission. It ordered the expropriation of “all movable and immovable property used for the production (sic) and distribution of gas and electricity” from Montreal Light, Heat and Power Consolidated and its subsidiaries. Hydro-Québec was born!
The new government corporation took over a gas network and four hydroelectric generating stations; Chambly, Cedars, Rivière-des-Prairies and Beauharnois. Its initial mission was to rehabilitate the network which had become obsolete, and to distribute electricity to the most remote rural areas.
1945 – 1959 : Hydro-Québec’s first successes
The electricity demand was boosted by post-war prosperity. Hydro-Québec’s mandate was to improve the reliability of the grid.
After creating the Office de l’électrification rural, Prime Minister Maurice Duplessis passed an Act in 1945 promoting rural electrification through electric cooperatives. He left the responsibility of electrifying the less densely populated regions of Quebec to local communities.
Following the recently passed act, Hydro-Québec strengthened its presence in Abitibi in 1950 with the acquisition of the Rapide-7 power station and the development of Rapide-2 on the Outaouais.
The state-owned company also continued to develop the Beauharnois generating station. And in 1953, it turned its attention to its first remote site: the Betsiamites River development on the North Shore.
The projects of the late 1950s foreshadowed hydroelectric development of the coming decades. The development of the Manicouagan and Outardes rivers on the North Shore was the prelude to major technical feats to transmit large quantities of energy over several hundred kilometres.
It was a prelude to the great projects and technical feats of the 1960s that would allow Hydro-Québec to become a symbol of the Quiet Revolution and to shine internationally.
Coming upon our next episode :
History of renewable energy in Quebec – Part 2 : Major challenges
- État de l’énergie au Québec. Chaire de gestion du secteur de l’énergie, HEC Montréal. 2021.
- Histoire de l’électricité au Québec. Wikipedia.
- History of Electricity in Québec. Timeline. Hydro-Québec.
- Liste des centrales hydroélectriques au Québec. Wikipedia.
- hydroélectricite.ca. Histoire de l’hydroélectricité au Québec.