Massive project gives new life to old hydro dams – by Josh O’Kane (Globe and Mail – November 27, 2013)

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SMOKY FALLS, ONT. – Halfway between Timmins and James Bay, it’s below zero and already snowing in October. The weather, though, does little to stop 1,100 workers stationed here. Men and women, professionals and apprentices – including many First Nations people – have been working year-round since 2010 to lay the foundation to power Northern Ontario for future generations.

If all goes according to plan, by 2015, they will double the capacity of the four dams that make up the Lower Mattagami River Hydroelectric Complex, a $2.6-billion project that will add 438 megawatts to the Northern Ontario grid – enough peak power for at least 400,000 homes.

In Smoky Falls, Ontario Power Generation is refurbishing three hydroelectic stations and completely replacing a fourth along the Mattagami River, which flows north into James Bay. It’s a long play on sustainable energy infrastructure in Canada’s North: By building onto existing stations, the project will avoid disrupting additional watersheds, minimizing its environmental impact while maximizing output.

But the project recognizes more than just the land that surrounds it; it also pays long-overdue respect to some of the first people who lived there. In a landmark partnership, the Moose Cree First Nation has a 25-per-cent stake in the project that will see them share in its revenue for generations.

“There is so much to the agreement,” says Moose Cree Chief Norm Hardisty Jr. His band’s reserve is north of the project in Moose Factory, Ont. “Certainly, it’s not just today we’re dealing with. We’re just not looking at this generation. Moving forward, we’re already prepared to have a trust and looking to invest most of the revenue we will be generating.”

The Lower Mattagami refurbishment is “more than just a way to build capacity without flooding more lands for headponds,” says Mike Martelli, OPG’s senior vice-president of hydro-thermal operations. Partnering with the Moose Cree has “resulted in an improvement in the capacity of the First Nation,” he says, through revenue sharing, skills training, employment and subcontracting opportunities.

This is not the first First Nation-utility partnership of its kind, but it is the largest. In 2009, OPG began to operate the 12 MW Lac Seul Station in a 25-per-cent partnership with the Lac Seul First Nation, northeast of Dryden, Ont. The Lower Mattagami project will add 36 times as much capacity as Lac Seul. The capacity of a hydroelectric project depends on two characteristics of the generating station: the head, or difference in height between water intake and the turbine, and flow, the amount of water the station can take in.

These are ideal at Lower Mattagami, says Mr. Martelli, an engineer who’s spent most of his career working with Ontario’s hydroelectric generating stations; therefore, he says, it makes sense to build on the existing stations’ capacities. (Smoky Falls, for instance, has an excellent head differential of 40 metres.)

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