Churchill River - Mega Water
Churchill Falls generating station
The Churchill River has the greatest hydroelectric potential of any river in
North America because of its volume and steep descent to the sea. The main obstacle
to constructing the station was the distance of Churchill Falls from the network
of transmission lines that could deliver the power to towns and cities.
The island of Newfoundland badly needed cheap power. But in order to access
power from the generators, a tunnel would have to be drilled through the Churchill
River seabed to route transmission lines under the Strait of Belle Isle, an impossibly
The power of the Churchill River could be tapped only if Churchill, in co-operation
with Quebec, built transmission line towers across Labrador to northern Quebec.
A deal was made between the provincial governments of Newfoundland and Quebec.
The Churchill Falls dam and underground power station was completed in 1974.
At the time, it was the most ambitious engineering project ever undertaken on
the continent. Upriver of the dam itself, 88 dikes were built to pool the water
of the Labrador Plateau into the Smallwood Reservoir.
A cavern was blasted from solid rock to hold the array of huge turbines and
generators. These would convert the river's flow into electricity. To force all
of the water through the turbines, the river's natural channel was diverted away
from the most rugged waterfall on the continent, now a dry outcrop of granite.
The power station is two-thirds owned by Newfoundland and one-third by Hydro-Québec.
Newfoundland has a contractual obligation, upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada,
to provide more than 4,000 megawatts of electricity to Hydro-Québec at
prices agreed upon in 1969. The price paid to Newfoundland will actually decline
greatly as the agreement approaches its expiry date in the year 2041.
This contract is now seen as having been grossly unfair to Newfoundland, Canada's
least prosperous province. Energy prices have risen tremendously since the contract
was signed. Hydro-Québec is now selling the Churchill Falls power to the
United States at a huge profit. Without Churchill Falls power, Hydro-Québec
would operate at a big loss.
Control over Labrador and its resources has been a long-festering issue between Quebec and
the rest of Canada. Many Quebeckers still believe that the British government was wrong in
transferring the Churchill River drainage basin to Newfoundland in 1927.
The Quebec government's refusal to reopen the power agreement with Newfoundland is considered
to be selfish and unfair by many Newfoundlanders. Recently, Brian Tobin, Premier of Newfoundland,
told Quebec's government that his province will simply shut down the power station unless Quebec
agrees to renegotiate. He also threatened to cut off the power if Quebec separates from Canada.
The government of Newfoundland wants to develop two more power stations on the Churchill River.
This time, Newfoundland is determined to deliver at least some of the power directly to the
island, through tunnels that no longer seem to be so impossibly expensive to dig. The big increase
in energy prices, that has made Churchill Falls such a bad deal for Newfoundland, could make
it possible for the province to develop the rest of the river's hydroelectric potential on
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