University of Calgary

The Wind at Her Back

 

Alumna Kelly Matheson develops green power with innovative thinking, shattering a dated stigma in the process.

Story by Bruce Weir

The office of Kelly Matheson, BSc’00, at Canadian Hydro Developers, Inc. in southwest Calgary reflects her professional duties and personal beliefs.

The rolled up maps and thick binders detailing various wind farms and run-of-river hydroelectric plants reveal her role as Canadian Hydro’s manager of environmental affairs. The bicycle leaning against the wall echoes her convictions regarding green power and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Canadian Hydro is one of only a few power companies in the country that operate multiple types of green power. It has wind farms and run-of-river hydroelectric facilities in Alberta, B.C. and Ontario, and also operates a biomass plant in Grande Prairie that uses waste wood to generate heat and steam for the Canfor lumber mill.

Run-of-river installations generate power without creating large reservoirs. Often, the sites are small creeks with a steep vertical drop, and a pipeline diverts a percentage of water into turbines below. The company’s first projects added power generating capacity to existing irrigation canal spillways in Alberta, without increasing environmental impact.

“The opportunity I’ve had here, to champion something I believe in morally, has been great,” Matheson, 31, says. And while she admits being somewhat idealistic when she graduated from the U of C’s undergraduate Environmental Science program, that can have advantages. “There’s something to be said for being able to stand up at a public consultation meeting and believe absolutely in what I’m doing,” she says.

Speaking at these gatherings is a big part of Matheson’s job, which also involves looking after permits and approvals for new projects. Her latest involves a new run-of-river installation on the Peace River, which will be the first hydroelectric project in Alberta in 30 or 40 years. But despite their green credentials, these plants are not always easily established.

“Many people in government and the public have an old stigma attached to hydroelectric power,” Matheson says. “We’re working very hard to break that because this really is a different kind of hydroelectric.”

Traditional hydro dams can flood wide swaths of local landscape, impact recreational activities and drastically change water flow patterns, which can disrupt movement and breeding of local wildlife—especially fish. Canadian Hydro projects, on the other hand, are often constructed where barriers to fish migration, such as waterfalls, already exist. Pipelines have minimal impact, and the new weir-based Peace River project is specifically designed to promote fish migration and fit into the surrounding terrain.

To explain these benefits, Matheson draws on skills honed when she captained the Dino’s soccer team to the national championship in 1998. The resulting media attention, plus the broad skills acquired during her environmental science education, has proved remarkably useful. “For me, it was just about the perfect program,” she says. “I took economics, chemistry—a little bit of everything, which as it turns out is just what I needed to jump into project management.”

Matheson is unfazed by her youth or the relative scarcity of women in green power development. “It’s a young enough industry that, believe it or not, my six years of experience puts me right up there with a lot of other people,” she says. “Quite often, still, I might be the only woman or the youngest woman at a meeting, but I’m certainly seeing more women.”

Management duties have forced Matheson to reduce some of the more glamorous aspects of her job, including using helicopters to scout sites for run-of-river installations. She’s no longer in the field as often as she’d like. “I love to put on waders and get out there with the fisheries biologists doing habitat assessments, but I guess the reality of growing with the company is that you have to change and adapt right along with it,” she says.

These days that means pulling on cycling shorts more often than waders. On those occasions when she cycles back home to Cochrane, Matheson frequently battles a stiff breeze. It’s about the only time the wind works against her.