Culture  Hydro-nomics

The economic case for alternative energy sources in Quebec

This past week, Montreal hosted the English world premiere of Seeking the Current, a film that  examines Hydro-Qubec’s Romaine project, as a part of the third Festival de films sur l’environnement. Narrated by Québec actor Roy Dupuis, the film follows directors Nicolas Boisclaim and Alexis de Gheldere on their 2008 journey down the Romaine River, which soon after the film was made became the home of four hydroelectric damns.

While the footage of this journey provides a narrative thread for the film, its focus is in fact much larger. Between the sporadic scenes documenting the filmmaker’s travels, the audience also accompanies Boisclaim, Gheldere, and Dupuis on a fact-finding mission to prove that Hydro-Québec should explore more renewable energy sources to generate the province’s electricity. The film’s team carefully considers the benefits of solar, bio-gas, wind, and geothermal power as alternatives to building hydroelectric damns like the ones found on the Romaine River. After consulting various experts including scholars, architects, entrepreneurs and former Hydro-Québec engineers, the film ultimately proves that these alternative energy sources make more economic sense for consumers than Hydro-Québec’s current methods.

Unlike other environmental documentaries, Seeking the Current does not rely on dramatic gestures to strengthen its argument –  a strategy that is in part a consequence of its narrow focus. Popular films like An Inconvenient Truth and The 11th Hour charge themselves with the task of awakening an international audience to the global climate crisis and seek to foster a sense of urgency by evoking images of natural disasters, citing startling statistics, and using celebrity charisma to present these issues with a sufficient amount of style. While many have praised films like these for reinvigorating the environmental movement, Seeking the Current effects its audience with a much more honest and straightforward approach. It resonates with viewers, not through plays on their emotions, but primarily by addressing a cause that is close to home, and has immediate and tangible economic repercussions.

During the Q&A session after the screening, it became apparent that while the film has been well-received by a younger audiences, these viewers suspect it will be difficult to convince older generations of the logic of the film’s argument. As the film explains, Hydro-Québec’s hydroelectric damns were once profitable. However, after years of exploiting Quebec’s premier resources, these dams have become much less economically sound, making alternative sources of energy a more sustainable option.  This financial perspective is particularly salient – when Hydro-Québec earns less profit, the burden falls on its customers to make up the difference. In his campaign to nationalize the company, former premier René Lévesque coined the slogan “Maitres chez nous” (“Masters of our own home”), promising that incorporating Quebec’s private energy producers into government-run Hydro-Québec would offer Quebeckers the lowest prices possible. As many viewers expressed during the Q&A session, while the film itself was compelling, some may still be tempted to label the filmmaker’s as “uneducated Leftists” who denied the profitability of Hydro-Québec while downplaying its nationalist significance.

Apart from its political and economic importance, Seeking the Current provides intriguing insights into the potential for alternative sources of energy across Quebec. Though it may not present its argument with any particular panache, concerned viewers will appreciate the thorough education it has to offer.