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Churchill River - Mega Water

Churchill Falls generating station

More on the Churchill River:
Churchill River:
The price of power

Cold comfort:
How the tiny ptarmigan survives winter

Low-level fright:
Fighter planes buzz the caribou herds

Life in Happy Valley-Goose Bay

Home Page:
The battered Innu culture strives to recover

The Lonely Season:
Traditional bush life in Labrador

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 expensive task.

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 its own.

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