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What is Run-of-River Hydropower?

Run-of-river hydropower diverts some of a river's flow to power electricity-producing turbines, returning the water downstream of the turbines. Turbines are not installed in the river itself. Each project requires significant infrastructure including a small dam to create a headpond, pipes (known as penstocks) that are often 3-4 km long to deliver water from the headpond to the lower level turbines, a powerhouse building, a tailrace channel through which the diverted water is returned to the river, access roads to the headpond and powerhouse, and transmission lines from the powerhouse to the nearest BC Hydro transmission line.

The construction costs of run-of-river projects are significant, as are their terrestrial and aquatic ecofootprints. The section of river between the dam and the powerhouse is sometimes called the diversion reach, because significant quantities of water are diverted from this section of river. When done properly, with care given to footprint size and location, these projects can create sustainable green energy that minimizes impacts to the surrounding environment and nearby communities. However, current environmental review and approval processes need more work to ensure that the power being generated is actually sustainable and environmentally friendly and that the cumulative effects of multiple projects are considered. As you can see from the information below, some of these projects are very large and do not deserve a 'green' label.


Assessing the Impacts of Run-of-River IPPs

‘Run-of-river’ hydropower is promoted in British Columbia and elsewhere as an environmentally-friendly solution to humanity’s ever-increasing energy demands. The rush to implement large-scale run-of-river projects (sometimes called Independent Power Producer, or, IPP projects) has prompted queries and debate about what these projects portend for people and the environment.

Watershed Watch Salmon Society recognized the need to answer some of the many questions being raised on run-of-river hydroelectric development in British Columbia and with funding from the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, produced two reports, a citizens's guide and a more detailed technical document, to help people learn more about run-of-river projects. Both reports include a "Top 10 List of Considerations" to help concerned citizens assess the sustainability of hydro projects (proposed or built) in their communities. See the links below for the full reports.

In November 2009, Watershed Watch helped organize and co-sponsored the Simon Fraser University dialogue Building a Vision for Green Energy in British Columbia. The goal of the workshop was to examine options for renewable energy, with a main focus on hydro electric power. It included presentations, panel discussions and dialogue and brought together perspectives from industry, academics, First Nations, and the general public. A link to the full proceedings of the report is below.

In December 2009, Watershed Watch also co-authored Recommendations for Clean Electricity Development in British Columbia, along with David Suzuki Foundation, Pembina Institute, and West Coast Environmental Law. The recommendations were broadly supported by environmental organizations across BC, receiving endorsement from 26 groups.


Watershed Watch Reports:


Bute Inlet Hydroelectric Project

The proposed hydro project in Bute Inlet clearly shows why many people are concerned about run-of-river hydro development and clearly indicates why some of these projects fall well outside of any 'green', environmentally friendly category. The sheer size, generating capacity, and ecological footprint of the Bute Inlet project is unprecedented in BC. Its 1,027-Megawatt capacity is greater (though much less efficient) than that of the massive Site C hydroelectric project proposed for the Peace River, and would require 443 kilometres of new transmission lines, 267 kilometres of permanent roads, 142 bridges, and nearly 100 kilometres of river and stream diversions. This project would significantly impact a wide range of wildlife in the area and the environmental impacts of the project are being considered in isolation from the other 250+ projects proposed for BC’s south coast, including the 30+ projects being proposed in the inlets immediately adjacent to Bute Inlet.


Other Resources:

Google Earth Files

To help visualize the scale and number of BC IPP projects, the following Google Earth files provide more information. The major projects file gives an overview of IPP projects throughout southern BC and the Bute Inlet file provides more information on the largest private run-of-river hydropower project yet proposed. Clicking on the links downloads files that run in Google Earth. If you don't have Google Earth, you can download the free program at Once you have the Google Earth program, the data will automatically be loaded into "Places" when you open the files above.

To learn more about water licences in BC download the water licences file and explore the map using Google Earth. All current water licences in BC for the purpose of power generation are mapped, and active water licence applications for the purpose of power generation are also included. The legend allows you to see both categories at once or to simply view only the current or only the prospective points of diversion. More detail on the power project is available by clicking on a location. Note that these data include all water licences for the purpose of power, so BC Hydro's projects are shown alongside of Independent Power Producer projects, particularly for current licences. This work was completed May 12, 2007 by Craig Williams.

Bute Inlet Flyover Video

This video provides a flyover perspective of the Bute Inlet Google Earth information. It is available in .WMV (75MB) or .MPEG (42MB) formats. This video provides a clear indication of the massive scale of this project.

Save the Upper Pitt River Video

This video outlines the dangers of private power projects to the unique and spectacular Upper Pitt River water system. The video is a collaboration of COPE 378, the Alouette River Management Society, the Burke Mountain Naturalists and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. The video is available in Windows Media Player or Quicktime or YouTube versions and briefly describes how the BC Energy plan created the private power ‘gold rush’ and details how the Upper Pitt would be negatively impacted by such a project.

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