In just a few years, the public will get a clear, up-close view of the once-majestic Chaudière Falls for the first time in more than a century, Hydro Ottawa said Monday.

Excavators are currently busy digging a huge hole beside the site on the Ottawa River. By 2017, four hydroelectric turbines will be buried below grade, making room for a public viewing platform above.

Hydro Ottawa unveiled the expansion plans Monday for the site it purchased three years ago from pulp and paper company Domtar. The turbines will generate 29 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 20,000 homes, said chief operating officer Greg Clarke.

The utility's vision is not only to create renewable energy, but also to allow the public to enjoy the falls and to recognize the area's First Nations heritage, as well as the city's industrial past, Clarke said.

"We chose to make the facility below grade so we wouldn't obstruct any of the views and be respectful of what makes Chaudière so special," he added.

Hydro Ottawa plans to build three viewing platforms of the Chaudière Falls, which have been hidden behind industrial buildings and inaccessible for over a century. The utility will also create a pedestrian and cycling bridge and preserve two buildings that survived the great fire of 1900. It will incorporate "leading technological solutions" to protect migrating American eel, he added.

It is also in continuing talks with the Algonquins of Ontario and Kitigan Zibi First Nation about creating a First Nations plaza alongside the Ottawa River, Clarke said.

The future of the falls has attracted controversy in recent years, especially with regards to the Zibi development planned by Windmill Developments. Two women were at the Booth Street site today protesting against the Hydro Ottawa project for the group Free the Falls, saying they have a strong affiliation for the sacredness of the site for First Nations.

The Algonquins of Ontario meanwhile, have a have a memorandum of understanding to work with Hydro Ottawa on the project.

"[The site] has been industrialized. That's not about to change, but we can make it better going forward. We can have people close to the water," said Lynn Clouthier, a member of the Algonquins of Ontario team currently negotiating a land claim with the governments of Ontario and Canada.

Money for city coffers

The project will entrench Hydro Ottawa's position as the largest municipally-owned producer of renewable energy in Ontario, said Hydro Ottawa CEO and president Bryce Conrad. That will allow the utility to produce a total of 99 megawatts of renewable energy, he said.

In November 2012, Hydro Ottawa paid $46 million to buy three hydro-electric plants, a portion of the ring dam and water rights from Domtar Corporation. Even before that purchase, Hydro Ottawa ran three generating stations at Chaudière Falls, including two that date back to 1891 and 1900. It also has gas-to-energy plants at the Trail Road and Lafleche landfills.

The expansion project at Chaudiere will cost "north of $150 million," said Conrad, adding the biggest challenge is its sheer size.

"It's in the backyard in the city of Ottawa. Everyone can see it. Everyone can hear it when the dynamite goes off," said Conrad. "So, just the logistics around a project of this magnitude are challenging."

The new turbines would have a financial payoff for the city as Hydro Ottawa's sole shareholder, said Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli. An agreement with the Independent Electricity System Operator is worth an extra $15 million of revenue annually, he said.

"Inasmuch as the City of Ottawa's past has been tied to this river," said Chiarelli. "Today's Chaudière expansion project confirms that Ottawa's future is also tied to it."