Cana­dian rivers: So­lu­tion to North­east US’ high energy prices?


Plenty of raw elec­tric­ity sloshes around in Que­bec’s rivers and reser­voirs, promis­ing re­lief for U.S. north­east­ern­ers, who pay the na­tion’s high­est power costs. But get­ting those elec­trons to smart­phones and air con­di­tion­ers in Bos­ton, Hart­ford and New York City is another mat­ter en­tirely.

In re­view or un­der con­struc­tion are five large-scale hy­dropower pro­pos­als that could pump thou­sands of megawatts into the North­east and ease prices as sup­ply in­creases. But crit­ics worry that trans­mis­sion lines will de­spoil the nat­u­ral beauty of places like New Hamp­shire’s White Moun­tains, and that over-re­liance on it will stymie ef­forts to trim con­sump­tion and de­velop re­new­able energy sources closer to home.

“Our view is that there is a role for Cana­dian hy­dropower in the New Eng­land power grid,” said Tom Ir­win, vice pres­i­dent and di­rec­tor of Con­ser­va­tion Law Foun­da­tion-New Hamp­shire, an en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cate. “It’s had a role, we ex­pect it will con­tinue to play a role and we ex­pect that role will in­crease. But we think that to the ex­tent it in­creases, that it be done in a thought­ful way and in a way that doesn’t un­der­mine the de­vel­op­ment of re­new­able re­sources at the lo­cal level.”

The Energy In­for­ma­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion in June forecast New Eng­lan­ders would pay a tops-inthe-na­tion 20.2 cents per kilo­watthour in the third quar­ter of this year, al­most 7 cents higher than the na­tional av­er­age. New York and New Jersey are ex­pected to pay 16.5 cents per kilo­watt-hour.

The six New Eng­land gover­nors say rein­ing in the costs is a high pri­or­ity and in April an­nounced they would work to­gether on so­lu­tions. Mas­sachusetts Gov. Char­lie Baker in July sought to re­quire util­i­ties to work with the state to pur­sue long-term con­tracts to bring hy­dropower into the state as a way to re­duce green­house gas emis­sions and help ratepay­ers.

In 2014, 1.6 per­cent of the elec­tric­ity pur­chased in the U.S. came from Canada, 60 per­cent of it pour­ing into New Eng­land and New York, ac­cord­ing to the EIA. In those mar­kets, Cana­dian im­ports made up 12 to 16 per­cent of the re­tail elec­tric­ity sales, enough to sig­nif­i­cantly move the nee­dle on the re­gion’s power costs. Five large-scale hy­dro pro­pos­als cur­rently in re­view or un­der con­struc­tion could pump thou­sands more megawatts into the North­east, putting more down­ward pres­sure on prices as sup­ply in­creases.

So many fac­tors go into a con­sumer’s bill — in­clud­ing sup­ply, de­mand, us­age and the prices of other fu­els at any mo­ment in time — that it’s hard to pin­point the ef­fect more Cana­dian hy­dropower will have on an in­di­vid­ual.

Canada is the world’s third­largest gen­er­a­tor of hy­dropower, be­hind China and Brazil, and still has plenty of un­tapped ca­pac­ity. Cana­dian gen­er­a­tors added 5,000 megawatts of hy­dropower over the past 10 years — enough to power 5 mil­lion homes — and ex­pect to match that in the com­ing decade, said Ja­cob Irv­ing, pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian Hy­dropower As­so­ci­a­tion. The coun­try could po­ten­tially dou­ble its ex­ist­ing ca­pac­ity, he said.

“For the U.S. and its de­sire to have a cleaner and more re­li­able elec­tric­ity sys­tem, when they look north, I think they can do so with con­fi­dence,” he said.

De­vel­op­ing that elec­tric­ity sys­tem lo­cally has proven a chal­lenge. It’s hard enough to get buy-in to string power lines or pipe­lines through the densely pop­u­lated, ed­u­cated and po­lit­i­cally savvy North­east. Build­ing a dam or putting up a wind farm stirs even deeper an­tipa­thy.

In New Eng­land, that Cana­dian hy­dropower es­sen­tially comes from one provider: Hy­dro-Que­bec. An EIA re­port shows that in 2014, it ex­ported more than 28 per­cent of the Cana­dian power that made it to the U.S., nearly dou­ble the next largest ex­porter, the Man­i­toba Hy­dro-Elec­tric Board.

Hy­dro-Que­bec’s 62 gen­er­a­tion fa­cil­i­ties — all but one are hy­dro plants — can pro­duce 36,500 megawatts, enough to power 36.5 mil­lion homes. By com­par­i­son, the op­er­a­tor of New Eng­land’s power grid, ISO- New Eng­land, puts to­tal gen­er­at­ing ca­pac­ity in the six states at 31,000 megawatts. Hy­dro- Que­bec has been a player in the U.S. mar­ket for about four decades, and spokes- man Gary Suther­land said send­ing more power south is a strate­gic goal.

Hy­dro- Que­bec is work­ing with Ever­source Energy, based in Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut, on the US$1.4 bil­lion North­ern Pass plan to send 1,200 megawatts of elec­tric­ity on mostly over­head power lines through New Hamp­shire to south­ern New Eng­land mar­kets in­clud­ing Bos­ton, Hart­ford and Providence, Rhode Is­land.

Build­ing North­ern Pass alone could save the re­gion US$250 mil­lion to US$300 mil­lion a year in whole­sale energy costs each year, Ever­source spokes­woman Lau­ren Collins said.

Crit­ics have as­sailed the pro­ject for what they say will be ir­repara­ble dam­age to New Hamp­shire’s scenic beauty, the en­vi­ron­ment and prop­erty val­ues along the route, com­pared with other pro­pos­als that largely call for buried lines.

“Other trans­mis­sion de­vel­op­ers are not just sug­gest­ing it, but are ac­tively do­ing it, in ways that don’t have the same neg­a­tive im­pacts that North­ern Pass would,” said Jack Sav­age, a spokesman for the So­ci­ety for the Pro­tec­tion of new Hamp­shire Forests.

Bury­ing the lines in a rugged en­vi­ron­ment l i ke New Hamp­shire’s moun­tains would raise the cost to US$3 bil­lion or US$4 bil­lion from US$ 1.4 bil­lion, an in­crease that would be passed on to ratepay­ers, Bill Quin­lan, Ever­source’s pres­i­dent of New Hamp­shire elec­tric oper­a­tions, said last year.

Af­ter the Energy Depart­ment last week re­leased a draft en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact state­ment on North­ern Pass, Ever­source said it was re­view­ing al­ter­nate routes.

Aside from the ques­tion of routes, crit­ics worry that a vast sup­ply of power from Canada will lull states into a false sense of se­cu­rity and that they’ll let ef­fi­ciency ef­forts lapse or shirk re­quire­ments to find more re­new­able sources closer to home.

Ir­win, of the Con­ser­va­tion Law Foun­da­tion, doesn’t want the Cana­dian hy­dropower to count to­ward those re­new­able goals or chip away at ef­forts to use less power.

“The more progress we can make on energy ef­fi­ciency, the less peo­ple will pay,” he said.

But Irv­ing, of the Cana­dian Hy­dropower As­so­ci­a­tion, re­jects the idea that more Cana­dian hy­dro will thwart progress on re­new­ables in the U.S. In­stead, he said, hy­dropower can be started and stopped quickly, mak­ing it a bet­ter part­ner for re­new­ables like so­lar and wind, which re­quire a re­li­able backup. That, he said, could en­cour­age more re­new­able projects in the states, not fewer.

Even ad­vo­cates of hy­dropower con­fess it’s not “car­bon- free” be­cause build­ing the reser­voirs to power the tur­bines cre­ates a short-term spike in green­house gases when trees are re­moved. But over the long term, hy­dropower pro­duces vastly less car­bon than fos­sil fu­els.

(Left) In this Sept. 27, 2014 file photo, Brad and Sue Wyman pad­dle their 1930s Old Town Guide ca­noe along the An­droscog­gin River as leaves dis­play their fall col­ors north of the White Moun­tains in Dum­mer, New Hamp­shire.

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