Climate change can impact hydropower production potential. In countries such as Canada, where national energy security is largely dependent on this energy resource for both domestic use and exportation, it could even become a critical concern.

Such considerations were the focus of a paper recently published in Resources and written by Amirali Amir Jabbari and Ali Nazemi from Concordia University in Canada.

“Climate change can be a critical stressor to hydropower production, locally, regionally, and globally,” the authors state. “This has a particular importance in a country like Canada, in which hydropower production has an important role in both domestic and international electricity supply.”

The majority of Canada’s hydropower facilities are located in the provinces of Quebec, British Columbia, and Ontario which include the largest population and concentration of socio-economic activities. However, despite this importance, Jabbari and Nazemi claim that current Canadian assessments are limited due to two key reasons:

  • The majority of current impact assessments have only been performed at small samples of power plants and/or river basins and do not provide a large-scale understanding, particularly across political jurisdictions where management decisions are made. 
  • Current studies mainly adopt a top-down impact assessment based on using climate, hydrological, and energy simulation models. These modelling technologies are still incomplete and impose large uncertainties into assessment results.

Research paper

In their research called Alterations in Canadian Hydropower Production Potential Due to Continuation of Historical Trends in Climate Variables, Jabbari and Nazemi develop “a fully bottom-up and empirical-based approach to assess the impact of changing climate across Canadian political regions”.

The authors explain that they have used historical trends in regional climate variables as a plausible scenario to quantify the changing climate. While the knowledge of dependency and causal links between climate variables and hydropower production across political jurisdictions is used as a basis to develop a set of predictive data-driven models, with which the expected gain/loss in hydropower production potential can be estimated under the quantification of historical climatic trends. 

Their results of monthly, seasonal and annual climate trend analyses across political regions in Canada confirm previous findings that Canada is getting warmer and wetter with more contribution from rainfall than snow. This assessment shows that Canada as a whole can benefit from higher monthly hydropower production potential under continuation of climatic trends but is subject to large variability across political regions. The results suggest increasing potential in Yukon, Ontario, and Quebec but decreasing production in the North Western Territories and Nunavut, British Columbia, and Alberta.

The authors also caution that their findings are “only one possible narrative that portrays Canadian hydropower production under uncertain climate futures”. They point out that hydropower production is also dependent on electricity demand as well as production capacity, for which “we did not consider any change under future conditions”. 

“As a result,” Jabbari and Nazemi state, “our findings should be taken as an assessment of change in hydropower production potential under one possible scenario for future climate. We would like to emphasise on the inherent uncertainty in this climate scenario, as there is no guarantee that historical climate trends remain unchanged in the future. Yet, we believe that this scenario can provide a tangible baseline narrative to inform both public and decisionmakers on the impact of climate change on Canadian hydropower production.”

The authors also hope that their findings will provide a fresh look at the possible gain/loss in hydro power production potential across Canadian political regions.

“We hope our study can trigger more efforts towards understanding challenges and opportunities in Canada’s hydropower production under climatic changes,” they conclude.