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OPG: Hydro Projects to Support a Zero-Carbon Future

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is a provincially owned entity that uses its diverse fleet to generate half the electricity used by the Canadian province of Ontario. With 66 existing hydropower stations and an ambitious goal of supporting OPG’s newly released Climate Change Plan, which aims at achieving a net-zero carbon future through nuclear, hydro, and solar power, OPG has recently taken on major projects refurbishing old hydro stations. This has involved close work with the First Nations communities on whose traditional territory many stations are built. In this interview, Paul Burroughs, OPG’s director of project management for renewable generation, tells us about some of the company’s recent projects and about how it is working to update its facilities efficiently and safely. 

Hydro Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Paul Burroughs: I’m the director of renewable generation projects in our enterprise projects office. We plan and execute hydroelectric, solar, and other projects across the business in support of renewable generation and our climate change initiatives. We work closely with our business development group to bring many of these projects to life. I started in 1990 in the civil analysis group of what was then Ontario Hydro and slowly worked my way through civil design and analysis, dam safety, and then project management. 

Hydro Leader: Please tell us about OPG. 

Paul Burroughs: OPG is a power generating entity that is wholly owned by the province of Ontario and primarily operates in Ontario, though we have subsidiaries elsewhere. We have a portfolio of 66 hydropower stations across the province; a biomass station in northwestern Ontario; a dual fuel oil–gas station in eastern Ontario; the Darlington nuclear facility in Clarington; and the Pickering nuclear facility east of Toronto in Pickering. Recently, OPG installed our first solar farm on the site of our decommissioned coal-fired station at Nanticoke. We produce more than half the electricity used in the province of Ontario, but there are also other generators. OPG has a total capacity of 18,876 megawatts (MW), and its hydropower facilities have a current generating capacity of 7,478 MW. We are a regulated company with a large portion of our generation regulated by the Ontario Energy Board. 

Hydro Leader: Would you tell us about how you engage with First Nations on your building and refurbishment projects? 

Paul Burroughs: Our hydroelectric facilities are in the traditional territories of indigenous communities. To move projects ahead, we need to consult and engage with the First Nations that may be affected by the project. Where OPG has developed new generating facilities, we have been partnering with the local First Nations. Currently, OPG has partnerships with the Moose Cree Nation at the Lower Mattagami River Hydroelectric Complex, the Taykwa Tagamou Nation at the Peter Sutherland Sr. Generating Station, the Lac Seul First Nation at the Lac Seul Generating Station in northwestern Ontario, and the Six Nations of the Grand River and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation at a solar project at Nanticoke.

Paul Burroughs: They are commercially based partnerships. The First Nation invests in a project, which it then owns for the life of the asset. In some cases, partnerships have been derived as part of a past grievance process, which is a process to address the historical effects of our existing stations, which were built from the 1920s to 1960s without consultation with the local First Nations. These partnerships create the opportunity for the First Nations to invest funds back into the projects to earn a long-term revenue stream. That way, they are directly benefiting from what is built in their traditional territories. These partnerships also provide an opportunity to build long-term mutually beneficial relationships, since hydroelectric assets can last more than 100 years if they are maintained and refurbished. 

Hydro Leader: Please tell us about the Little Long Dam safety project. 

Work on the Little Long Dam safety project.

Paul Burroughs: The Lower Mattagami Hydroelectric Complex has four stations: Little Long, Smoky Falls, Harmon, and Kipling. Smoky Falls was built in the 1920s and was substantially smaller than the other stations, which were built in the 1960s. From 2010 to 2014, the old Smoky Falls Generating Station was replaced by a new powerhouse and three new units, while a single unit was added to each of the other stations on the river to increase the total capacity by nearly 500 MW. The Mattagami River goes from being a meandering river in the summer to passing more water than Niagara Falls in the spring, so we have to get water safely around the stations. The most upstream hydropower station is Little Long, where the Adam Creek spillway was constructed in the 1960s to bypass flows above the capacity of the four cascade hydropower stations around the complex. The bypassed water reenters the Mattagami River downstream of Kipling Generating Station. In 2011, the Province of Ontario updated its dam safety requirements, including the criteria for determining the inflow design flood. The Little Long Dam safety project involves bringing the discharge capacity of the Adam Creek spillway up to meet these revised requirements. The current discharge capacity is being increased from approximately 6,100 centimeters to 8,700 centimeters. To put that in perspective, OPG will be increasing the discharge capacity by almost the amount of water you can see cascading over Niagara Falls during tourist season. 

Hydro Leader: What are the elements of dam safety? 

Paul Burroughs: Our public safety program covers some of the recreational aspects of safety, such as operating our spillway gates in a stepped manner to minimize risks to the public downstream; ensuring we have adequate barriers, signage, fencing, and safety booms in place; and carrying out active media campaigns like “Stay Clear, Stay Safe.” We do a lot of work in that area, because dams are part of communities. 

Dam safety requirements are intended to address the extreme events that can cause dams to fail catastrophically. The amount of water a dam must be able to safely pass is known as the inflow design flood (IDF). The IDF is determined by provincial requirements as defined under the Lakes and Rivers Improvement Act. Once we know the IDF, we design the structures and systems to safely pass it. Structural stability is another aspect of dam safety. The structures must be stable as they resist the force of water they hold back. We can’t have the dam turn over or slide away. There are various seismic load cases, ice load cases, and basic water load cases that are considered in the design; these requirements are also spelled out in the province’s standards. Dam safety also involves the ongoing monitoring of dams by trained staff, which involves inspections and instrumentation to measure water pressures and any movements of the structures. 

Hydro Leader: What is the status of the Little Long Dam safety project? 

Paul Burroughs: The project involves three key pieces of work. The largest component of the project is the addition of four new sluicegates to the structure—two on each side of the eight existing gates—to address the new IDF requirements. Second, we are upgrading the existing structures to meet stability requirements. This involves rock-anchoring the structure into the ground. Finally, we are replacing the 10 existing gates and the associated equipment, most of which are over 50 years old and near their end of life. There are some new standards for the gates and structures, including some that require us to enclose the hoist houses to protect the equipment from the elements and to improve access for maintenance tasks. With the new market and new renewables, the gates at our stations operate more than they ever have in the past. Historically, we usually wouldn’t operate them much in the winter. To support the intermittent nature of some renewable generation facilities, hydroelectric facilities are being asked to be more flexible. That implies an increased need to spill water, including in the winter, which means that these gates are now designed to be able to lift with ice on them. The hoist house is a way to keep the motors warm and operable through the winter. 

Hydro Leader: You are also working on a refurbishment project at Niagara Falls. Would you tell us about that? 

Work on the Little Long Dam safety project.

Paul Burroughs: In Niagara, there are 10 units down at the Sir Adam Beck I Generating Station, which was built in the 1920s with 25‑hertz (Hz) power. From 1960 to 1990, all the units were replaced with 60 Hz generators except for two that supplied steel mills that were also still at 25 Hz. Eventually, the demand for 25 Hz power went away, and OPG had two units that were sitting there unused and at the end of life. We made a case to replace them with new 60 Hz units. The infrastructure to support the units is already there; we just have to take the older units out and put the new units in. This project will substantially upgrade the station’s capacity, with an increase of 113 MW. 

An interesting aspect of this project is that we ended up replacing the 100‑year-old cast steel scroll cases on both units. The scroll case is a part of the water passage that distributes the water from the penstock evenly into the turbine. We did an initial assessment of the scroll cases and found that they were among the first cast steel structures of significant size to be built. We found that the builders had improved the quality of the castings as they progressed through the 10 units they built, but that the first 2 scroll cases had quality issues. Once we got more thorough access to the scroll cases and assessed the cracks and voids in more detail, we realized that they would require a significant amount of work to repair and that there was a risk that even after repair, we would find that they needed to be replaced. We analyzed how much it would cost to keep chasing the cracks and welding them versus the option of replacing the scroll cases entirely. Removing the old scroll cases was a little tricky, as they were embedded in mass concrete. However, we did some tests and found that the concrete poured immediately around the scroll cases was secondary concrete and could be chipped out. During construction, the scroll cases had been placed on the primary concrete and then had had secondary concrete poured around it to fix them in place. We reversed the process; cut out the scroll cases; and chipped out the secondary concrete, which separated nicely at the original primary concrete. Now, we have installed new, modern, steel scroll cases and reembedded them in concrete to provide a solid foundation for the new units. This is the first time we have replaced embedded steel scroll cases, and we are pleased with the results. 

Hydro Leader: Do you have any other additional projects coming? 

Paul Burroughs: We’re building a 10 MW plant in Calabogie on the Madawaska River, northwest of Ottawa. The previous plant there was over 100 years old, and 3 years ago it was destroyed by a tornado that tore the roof off, damaged equipment, and threw some diesel generators around. We always had plans to redevelop it, but the tornado expedited our timeline. Last year, we started construction and are well into the concrete program. We expect to start installing the two turbine generators by Christmas 2021. 

Hydro Leader: What is OPG’s vision for the future? 

Paul Burroughs: We have a lot of value to add as a large electricity producer. Almost all our generation is carbon-free nuclear and hydro. Some of our subsidiaries have gas plants, but OPG’s direct generation is around 98 percent carbon neutral. We’re continuing to directly support climate change objectives by reinvesting in our hydroelectric units. OPG will refurbish, overhaul, and upgrade 66 plants and around 167 units over the next 10–20 years. We’re also looking at advancing small modular reactors. We support Ontario’s electrification initiatives because we have expertise in managing electrical projects and connecting to the grid. We’re proud of our ability to execute capital projects such as the refurbishment of the 4,000 MW Darlington Nuclear Station, which we are doing on time and on budget. 

I’m proud to be a part of OPG, and I am proud of our focus on a net-zero future. I see opportunities to redevelop a lot of our small hydro assets that are at their end of life and, in the longer term, to look for more opportunities to develop new hydroelectric generation in Ontario in partnership with First Nations. 

Paul Burroughs is the director of projects for renewable generation at OPG. He can be contacted at paul.j.burroughs@opg.com.