We weren’t scheduled to meet with the representatives from Hydro-Quebec until shortly after midday, so we took advantage of the free time to catch up on data logging, blog posting and equipment management. We were still dialing things in so that we could be most effective, but yesterday’s time in Chisasibi had clearly demonstrated to us the need to be ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. We spent some time refining our “run and gun” package so that we’d be ready for anything.
Our contacts at Hydro-Quebec were Gary, a PR representative who flew up from Montreal to meet with us, and Eric, a long-time employee of the company who was based in Radisson and gave tours of the hydro installations. We learned that Eric had essentially grown up with the project, living in Radisson when he was a kid and the construction of LG2 was still underway. Eric’s firsthand knowledge of the La Grande hydro projects combined with Gary’s extensive knowledge of Hydro-Quebec’s operations made for a wealth of information that we were grateful to have access to.
We started with a chat in a conference room, going over some basics and the plan for the day. We would watch a presentation first, and then head out for the Robert-Bourassa generating station, or “LG2” (La Grande 2 — the second dam & power station in the La Grand River hydro system).
On the way into the presentation, we passed through Hydro-Quebec’s “museum,” which featured a number of informational exhibits about the hydro projects. In the center of the room stood an impressive representation of a wolf taking down a caribou, both animals perpetually frozen in mid-clash.
The presentation “room” was actually a theater, which would easily rival almost any movie theater back home. Eric’s presentation first covered the distribution of various power sources in Quebec and the USA. We learned that 98% of Quebec’s power comes from hydro, and that the province generates more power than they can use, subsequently exporting a great deal. Vermont is, of course, one of its customers. Quebec was speckled almost entirely with blue dots on the power source distribution map, representing hydro; the USA by contrast was covered mostly with black and brown dots representing coal, oil and natural gas. We have some significant hydro generation in a few regions, primarily the Pacific Northwest, but the sheer volume of water available and exploited for power generation in Quebec is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
The presentation then moved on to look at the generating station itself, describing how it was designed and how it works. It is no exaggeration to say that the LG2 power station is one of the most significant engineering marvels of the modern world. Commissioned between 1979 and 1981, it is the largest underground power generating station on the planet. The excavated machine hall housing the 16 giant turbines, each of which can move an Olympic-sized swimming pool’s worth of water in 10 seconds, is four stories tall and nearly 1,600 feet long and sits 450 feet below the surface. There is a two-lane road which leads from the outside down to the power station and is large enough to accommodate tour buses and tractor trailers. The dam itself is almost two miles long and over 500 feet tall. There is a spillway, nicknamed the “giant’s staircase,” which features ten 32-foot high steps rising over nearly a mile with 8 gates at the top. The enormous spillway can discharge twice the flow of the St. Lawrence River at Montreal. The Robert-Bourassa system has an installed generating capacity of 5,616 megawatts. A second generating station, La Grande 2A, was added on the same reservoir in the early 1990’s, and adds an additional 2,106 megawatts of generating capacity.
After the presentation, we headed out for the dam. Security is a concern, as one would expect, and we weren’t allowed to film at the checkpoint. Once beyond it, though, we were able to roll our cameras on the exterior features of the installation. We had luck that it was a spectacular day — cold but clear and very sunny. We captured some footage of the enormous dam from a ways off, before heading for the power station.
Unfortunately we were not allowed to film inside the power station, either, due to security concerns. We heard that a reporter hopped a fence a while back and was able to gain access to the facilities. Since that time, security was tightened.
Hydro-Quebec was currently engaged in refurbishing the turbines, so the access road was closed due to the movement of large-scale equipment. This meant that we had to take the elevator down to the machine hall. We walked through the hall from end to end and saw some of the giant turbines sitting on the floor, being prepared for installation. There are two giant cranes which run on rails on the sides of the hall and carry the huge pieces of equipment back and forth during installation, repair and refurbishing. There is also an office area, with completely ordinary-looking office spaces (which struck me as a little funny, considering their subterranean locale) and a command center featuring a workstation that had more monitors than I could count. After touring the machine hall, we took another elevator down to the lower levels under the turbines, and were able to actually view one of the turbines in action, spinning around incredibly fast. We put our hands on the outside of the spiral case and felt the chill of the water surging through on the other side.
Back on the surface, we hopped back into the van and headed out for the spillway. Looking slightly reminiscent of an Aztec pyramid, though much less precise, the spillway is the most alien of all of the features of the Robert-Bourassa installation. It is a giant channel gouged into the landscape, falling away in huge steps below a series of gates which can be opened and closed as needed.
By the time we rolled back into Radisson, it was nearing dark. We backed up our footage, ate dinner, and went to bed early. We had an early start the next morning, and it would prove to be a long day.