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Moose Cree Chief Norm Hardisty Jr., left, and Ontario Power Generation’s Mike Martelli chat near the Smoky Falls Generating Station. (Josh O’Kane/The Globe and Mail)
Moose Cree Chief Norm Hardisty Jr., left, and Ontario Power Generation’s Mike Martelli chat near the Smoky Falls Generating Station. (Josh O’Kane/The Globe and Mail)

Electricity

Massive project gives new life to old hydro dams Add to ...

This is part of a series looking at infrastructure projects designed to create economic opportunities in the North.

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.

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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.)

The structure of these hydroelectric stations can last more than 100 years; the Decew Falls I Generating Station near St. Catharines, for instance, went into service in 1898.

While three of the generating stations – Harmon, Kipling and Little Long – will receive one additional generating unit each, the original Smoky Falls structure is being completely replaced, with a new three-unit station being built adjacent to it. This will bring the total generating capacity at Lower Mattagami to 924 megawatts from 486 megawatts.

Smoky Falls was built in the 1920s by Spruce Falls Power and Paper Co. to supply power for its Kapuskasing pulp and paper mill, which for a time supplied newsprint to its longtime co-owner, The New York Times. Thirty years later, Ontario Hydro built its own three stations near Smoky Falls: Harmon and Kipling stations downstream and Little Long Station upstream.

Ontario Hydro agreed to buy the Smoky Falls station at the end of the 1980s, and began to look into expanding the capacity of all four stations, holding environmental hearings and consultations with First Nations on whose traditional lands the project would use – the Moose Cree.

Bob Rae’s NDP government gave the project a go-ahead in 1994 without a formal environmental review, but the utility eventually backed down; not only did consultations with the Moose Cree break down, but the utility also took a $280-million writeoff in 1996 in drastically reducing the project’s potential scope.

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