In Quebec, almost 100% of the energy produced comes from renewable energy1. This has been made possible by the particular geography of the province, but also thanks to strong political choices dating back to 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 second part of our series: the second phase of the nationalization of electricity, major projects and their challenges.
The 1960s and 1970s
The Quiet Revolution brought a second breath to the development of hydroelectric infrastructure in Québec. When the Liberal government of Jean Lesage came to power in June 1960, Hydro-Québec was given the exclusive mandate to develop and operate rivers that had not yet been reserved for private interests. This marked the beginning of the second phase of the nationalization of electricity.
1960 : the Quebec and Francophone know-how
At Carillon, a hydroelectric power station was built in the southern part of the Outaouais region. French-speaking engineers from Hydro-Québec were assigned to manage the station. The head office and all of the company’s construction sites were swiftly taken over by the French-speaking community, which led to the development of Quebec’s consulting engineers.
Hydro-Québec also built the most ambitious hydroelectric complex in its history on the Manicouagan and Outardes rivers. The “Manic-Outardes” project, with an estimated power of 4,500 MW, was the scene of technical feats for the time that made Hydro-Québec known internationally. For example, the transmission of large quantities of high-voltage electricity over long distances reached a record of 735 kV. Not only was this a world first, but it was also a key event without which the project could not have taken place. Indeed, with a lower voltage, the losses during transport would have been considerable and would have required the construction of many other power lines.
1962 : René Lévesque a detonator for nationalization
On February 12, 1962, René Lévesque, then Minister of Natural Resources, gave an important speech that launched his campaign for nationalization. At the opening of National Electricity Week, the Minister described the situation in Quebec as “an unbelievable and costly mess “. Speaking to members of the Association de l’industrie électrique du Québec, the Minister condemned usurious electricity rates and the lack of uniformity from one region to another with respect to rates and necessary investments. He also deplored the maze of responsibilities between private distributors, electricity cooperatives, municipal networks and self-generators. He proposed that Hydro-Québec be given the role of coordinating the development of water resources and standardizing electricity rates throughout Quebec.
Secret reunion and early general election
René Lévesque’s vision did not meet with unanimous approval in the cabinet of Premier Jean Lesage. The latter gathered his government at a secret meeting at the Lac à l’Épaule fishing camp on September 4 and 5, 1962. René Lévesque succeeded in convincing his Liberal Party colleagues to support his proposals. At the end of this meeting, the Premier announced that early elections would be held on November 14 in order to propose to Quebec voters the nationalization of private electricity distributors. With the campaign slogan “Maîtres chez nous” (Masters in Our Own Home), Jean Lesage was re-elected!
A few months later, his government launched a takeover bid and Hydro-Québec bought out some 80 companies including private distributors, electricity cooperatives and municipal networks.
On May 1, 1963, Hydro-Québec became the sole supplier of electricity in Québec.
A few months later, his government launched a takeover bid and Hydro-Québec bought out some 80 companies: private distributors, electricity cooperatives and municipal networks.
On May 1, 1963, Hydro-Québec became the sole supplier of electricity in Québec.
1965 : A nuclear test
In the mid-1960s, when the nuclear craze was at its peak in many countries around the world, Hydro-Québec tried to look into this sector to meet Québec’s energy needs. The company signed an agreement with Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) to build the experimental Gentilly-1 plant (later dismantled), and then the Gentilly-2 plant, which closed in 2012, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, opposite Trois-Rivières. However, the accidents that occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the United States in 1979 and at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986 dampened enthusiasm for the massive adoption of this energy source. In response, a moratorium was enacted in 1980 to put a stop to the development of new nuclear power plants in Quebec.
1971 : The launch of an extraordinary project
On April 30, 1970, Robert Bourassa came to power. A few months later, after the October crisis that shook Quebec and one year to the day after his election, the premier launched his project of the century. Amidst the political turmoil, Robert-Bourassa gave the green light to the development of the world’s largest hydroelectric project, the James Bay project, which would allow him to achieve his goal of creating 100,000 new jobs. Despite the criticism and escalating costs, a construction site of enormous proportions was underway on the great river. The territory is located more than 1000 kilometres from Montreal and covers nearly 350,000 km2 in the heart of the taiga. It is a real challenge in terms of logistics, financing, environmental impacts, relations with First Nations communities and construction techniques in a hostile and remote environment.
Difficulties on the scale of the project
The scale of the project presented difficulties. Construction was interrupted on three occasions. In 1974, major forest fires erupted causing a halt in construction. At the same time, the progress of the construction site was opposed by the aboriginal communities. Fearing the negative consequences on their traditional way of life, they vigorously contested the James Bay project. The courts ruled in their favour and ordered the work to stop in November 1973. The Bourassa government had no choice but to enter negotiations.
The outcome of these negotiations provided for the granting of large sums of money to the Cree and Inuit communities, the creation of several protected reserves, and the preservation of their hunting and fishing grounds. The historic agreement called the “James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement” was signed on November 11, 1975.
In 1974, a conflict between labour unions escalated which led to the ransacking of the La Grande-2 construction site.
Over its twenty-five years of construction, the La Grande complex was a tumultuous project.
Nevertheless, phase 1 was completed on time and on budget. In 1979, the La Grande-2 dam and powerhouse (renamed Robert-Bourassa following the death of the former Prime Minister) were officially inaugurated six months ahead of schedule by then Premier René Lévesque. The La Grande-3 generating station was added to Hydro-Québec’s generating fleet in June 1982 and La Grande-4 in 1984. A second phase of the project, involving the construction of four additional generating stations, was built between 1987 and 1996.
The American market
The development of international trade in electricity between Québec and the United States did not occur until after the 1973 oil crisis. At that time, the Québec electrical network was not capable of exporting electricity. But the situation had to change with the launch of the James Bay project since Prime Minister Bourassa intended to finance the La Grande hydroelectric complex by exporting large quantities of energy to the United States.
The development of a robust exchange infrastructure appeared crucial. In 1978, Hydro-Québec commissioned the first major 765-kV interconnection line linking the Hydro-Québec and Power Authority of the State of New York (PASNY) grids. The two companies agreed to meet the peak demands they experienced at different times of the year. The agreement is that Hydro-Québec will export significant amounts of energy to New York State from the Beauharnois generating station from June to October. During the winter months, the U.S. grid returns to Quebec some or all of what the province exports during the summer.
The 1980s and 1990s
Economic conjecture and controversy
Following the second oil crisis of 1979, the saturation of certain electricity markets and the economic recession of the early 1980s, electricity demand slowed down considerably. This climate of uncertainty forced Hydro-Québec to completely review its development strategy. The company reduced its operating expenses. It tried to sell the surplus electricity it had anticipated with the commissioning of the powerful Phase 1 generating stations of the La Grande complex, while at the same time committing itself to promote energy conservation. In the early 1990s, as the electricity surplus was eliminated, Hydro-Québec re-launched its construction program to meet growing demand. In 1987, it built Phase 2 of the La Grande complex and then began construction of the Sainte-Marguerite-3 generating station at the end of the 20th century. Finally, energy efficiency was at the heart of Hydro-Québec 90’s communication.
Hydro-Québec also had to deal with controversies surrounding some of its projects brought by criticism from First Nations communities and environmental associations. The CAD 12.6 billion Great Whale project, with an announced capacity of 3,160 megawatts, was vigorously contested before the Parizeau government finally suspended its development on November 18, 1994.
The late 1990s were marked by major natural events that disrupted the lives of Quebecers. In January 1998, an ice storm of unprecedented intensity caused the most serious power outage in Hydro-Québec’s history and damaged a large part of the transmission and distribution networks. In some cases, customers were without power for four weeks. This ordeal forced the company to carry out major work to increase system reliability.
Coming upon our next episode :
History of renewable energy in Quebec – Part 3 : Renewal.
- 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.
- histoirecanada.ca. L’hydroélectricité : comment le choix de ce type d’énergie a-t-il influencé le développement du Québec. Claude Demers. 2020
- L’énergie nucléaire au Québec : débats politiques et conflits de représentations, 1963-1996. Stéphane Savard. 2016.