June 09, 2023
As I perused today’s local paper, I came across an article on an attempt to make the US energy grid less reliant on fossil fuel by tapping into the abundant hydroelectric power generated in Canada. As the New England states shift to green energy most is currently produced by hydroelectric plants in northern Quebec Provence and then sent south along huge transmission lines. A new study by the Montreal Economic Institute published in May predicted that by the end of the decade these large hydroelectric systems will fall short of the generating capacity to meet the demand for power in Quebec Provence. This is forcing some New England lawmakers to question plans to construct new transmission lines across their states, despite the Canadian energy giant Hydro-Quebec’s insistence it will still be able to meet its obligations. Over the last decades Hydro-Quebec has built a series of electric generating facilities in northern Quebec and construction of the dams and the resulting flooding of lands behind them have drawn protests from indigenous and environmentalists on both sides of the boarder. These dams now provide half of the renewable hydroelectric energy generated in North America.
When I checked online, I found Hydro-Québec is a public utility that manages the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity in the Canadian province of Quebec, as well as the export of power to portions of the Northeast United States. The energy giant was established by the Government of Quebec in 1944 from the exportation (i.e., taking by the state for public use) of private firms. This was followed by massive investment in hydro-electric projects in northern Quebec resulting in 63 hydroelectric power stations having a combined output capacity of 37,370 megawatts. Extra power is exported from the province and Hydro-Québec supplies 10% of New England’s power requirements. Hydro-Québec is a Crown corporation (state-owned enterprise) based in Montreal. In 2018, it paid CAD$2.39 billion in dividends to its sole shareholder, the Government of Québec. More than 40% of Canada’s water resources are in Québec and Hydro-Québec is the fourth largest hydropower producer in the world. The company’s residential power rates are among the lowest in North America.
Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commission has stated hydroelectric power is only one part of the solution to achieve clean energy. The New England states are working together to decarbonize the electric systems using other means, including offshore wind turbines. Hydro-Quebec has expressed interest in transmission lines capable of moving power in both directions. This would allow hydro to be transmitted from the north and wind generated in New England to be transmitted to Canada for storage later use, particularly during the winter when reliability is not always assured. The 211 mile, 1,200 megawatt line is estimated to cost US$2 billion. Investment in clean power is not cheap.
Thoughts: Hydro-Quebec invested US$4.3 billion in the construction and maintenance of their transmission system in 2022 alone. In return they posted a net income of US$4,557 million. While clean power may not be cheap, it appears to be profitable. Moving to clean energy sources has always been met with pros and cons. The projects can have impacts on the lands where they are built (dams flood land, turbines kill raptors, construction may impact critical environments.). These are legitimate concerns and need to be considered when approving the projects. Continuing to use fossil fuels does not appear to be an alternative that is sustainable in either the long (non-renewable) or short run (climate change). The most cost effective and environmentally sound action would be for all of us to use less energy. Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.