Book Review: “Branchée: Hydro-Québec et le futur de l’électricité” (French version; in English : “Charging Ahead: Hydro-Québec and the Future of Electricity”)

Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow have published this worthwhile book on Hydro-Québec. I have recently read the French version, and the English translationwill be available on October 15, 2019. I would highly recommend this book to people who need to understand what is driving Hydro-Québec. Electrical system vendors and other industry stakeholders will certainly appreciate the perspective that Branchée/Charging Aheadbrings. However, the authors largely (but not exclusively) rely on internal Hydro-Québec sources and sometimes come across as overly praising the company. Other, more critical, sources might be needed to grasp the complexities of the energy sector in Québec. 

Overall, Branchée/Charging Ahead is a very well-documented book on Hydro-Québec and current strategic directions. Fifty-three people were interviewed, including a large number of Hydro-Québec personnel, up to the CEO, Éric Martel. The book also draws on multiple third-party references and previous article published by the authors. 

Branchée/Charging Aheadstarts with a history of Hydro-Québec. The history of Hydro-Québec innovations is highlighted, with the 735 kV transmission lines being described as “Hydro-Québec’s great technical prowess”[i]. However, this technology dates back to the 1960s’. While there has been nothing remotely comparable since then, the book lists other examples of Hydro-Québec innovations, such as the LineRanger robot, Li-Ion batteries and TM4 electric motors. The book rightfully says that the “commercialization of inventions is an old fantasy of Hydro-Québec. For 30 years, all CEOs have talked about their amazing potential. But their promises have always disappointed.”[ii]TM4 is a good example given in the book: TM4 used up $500 million over 20 years, but Hydro-Québec sold 55% of it to Dana for only $260 million.[iii]

The book contains many noteworthy and hard-to-find current facts and numbers that industry professional might find valuable, such as:

  • As of early 2019, there are 716 prosumers (distributed generators) on Hydro-Québec’s network.[iv]
  • By controlling just 4 baseboard smart thermostats, Hydro-Québec can reduce the peak load of a typical household by 1 kW; Ten smart thermostats lead to a 2 kW saving.[v]
  • Hydro-Québec is running a smart home pilot project with 400 households, intending to launch a new smart home product through an unnamed subsidiary; Sowee, from Électricité de France, is given as a comparable.[vi]

The authors do not attempt to explain their paradox of innovation promises to have always failed Hydro-Québec and Hydro-Québec continuing to heavily invest in innovation. 

Toward the end, Branchée/Charging Ahead provides many insights into the thinking of Hydro-Québec senior managers, including where they see the industry going, how it is going to affect Hydro-Québec, what strategic imperatives ensue, and what Hydro-Québec needs to do. Undoubtedly, vendors could find in here material to enrich proposals and presentations. 

I found very few instances of questionable facts in the book. The Philadelphia Navy Yard microgrid is given as an example[vii], but this project has now been abandoned and is being reborn on a much smaller scale. Economically, I also disagree with the statement that Hydro-Québec is well positioned to develop hydrogen production[viii]– there is far more value in using dispatchable hydro to balance renewable resources than to produce hydrogen from electricity (which is a highly inefficient process). 

Furthermore, I believe that many customers, outside industry expert, vendors or other utilities might object to some praising characterization of Hydro-Québec, such as when the authors state that Hydro-Québec “is one of the best managed electricity grids on the continent and is admired by the largest companies in the industry”[ix]or that it has one of the most reliable grids on the continent[x]. The book would have been more balanced by giving a greater voice to those external stakeholders. Also, given the generally positive perspective that the authors are offering, Branchée/Charging Aheadwill certainly support Hydro-Québec when it tries to gather support for Bill 34[xi].  

All this being said, I greatly enjoyed reading the book and I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to better understand this fascinating company. However, I would caution against drawing conclusions or designing policies based solely on Branchée/Charging Aheadwithout balancing some of the ideas with more independent sources.   

[i]                Chapter 2. Quotes from the book are translated from the French edition. 

[ii]               Chapter 10.

[iii]              Chapter 10.

[iv]               In the introduction and later in chapters 4, 5 and 6.

[v]                Chapter 6.

[vi]               Chapter 6.

[vii]              Chapter 6.

[viii]             Chapter 6

[ix]               In the introduction.

[x]                Chapter 1.

[xi]               See my take on Bill 34.