Hydro power historically has been one of Alberta’s oldest and most important sources of energy. For over two thousand years, humans have developed ways to harness the energy of moving water. The specific forms of hydro power have evolved tremendously over the centuries, from simple water wheels used to operate small mills to vast hydroelectric dams that help power cites. Regardless of scale, the basic principle behind hydro power has remained the same: the kinetic energy of water is converted into mechanical energy and used to generate power or, with turbines, electricity.
Hydroelectricity is a clean, renewable energy and has remained an important source of power in many parts of the world, including Canada. In 2013, for example, Canada ranked third behind only China and Brazil in hydroelectricity production. The fuel, flowing water, is free and self-renewing, and can be stored in reservoirs until needed. Hydroelectricity produces no pollution, though the damming of rivers can have a dramatic and adverse impact on
surrounding ecosystems. This negative impact can be mediated somewhat by run-of-the-river projects, which harness the energy of rivers without creating large storage reservoirs and flooding the surrounding area. Such projects tend to be much smaller than conventional hydro dams, however, and produce considerably less power. They are also subject to fluctuations in precipitation, since they cannot store water to compensate for periods of limited rainfall.
Hydro power has historically been one of Alberta’s most important sources of energy. Some of the province’s earliest power-generating stations were hydroelectric, and up until the 1950s, the majority of Alberta’s power came from rivers. Hydroelectricity evolved in the early twentieth century to meet the enormous power demands of a dynamic, rapidly growing province. In many ways, the history of hydro power reflects many of the broader themes in the history of modern Alberta and comprises an essential part of the province’s energy and resource history.