3 ugly numbers behind the push for Canadian hydropower

New England’s governors and the developers who stand to profit need to be honest about its true costs and benefits

At the recent New England governors and Eastern Canadian premiers conference in Bretton Woods, there was much talk of new transmission lines for additional imports of Canadian hydropower into New England. Indeed, financing these lines is the centerpiece of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s pending energy bill and the supposedly “clean” half of the New England governors’ massive gas pipeline and hydropower plan.

Earlier this year, after the governors’ plan emerged, the Conservation Law Foundation began asking a number of questions about increasing hydropower imports through new transmission projects: What will it cost? Is it clean? Is it reliable?

We ask these questions knowing that hydropower is part of our current energy mix, is preferable to burning coal and has a role to play in the future. Yet the governors — and the developers who stand to profit — need to be honest about its true costs and what benefits it does and doesn’t provide.

Based on a review of documents obtained from the states on the governors’ plan (a summary and an archive of the documents are at clf.org/foia), their economic and environmental analysis seems flawed and incomplete.

In the search for hard data points, we offer three of our own:

 • $800 million (per year above current market prices). That’s the cost, according to CLF’s analysis of Hydro-Québec and Northeast Utilities regulatory filings, to generate energy at Hydro-Québec’s new hydropower facilities on the Romaine River (now under construction) and deliver it to the New England electric market through a transmission project like Northeast Utilities’ proposed Northern Pass project.

On a per kilowatt-hour basis, we estimate the cost at 15.2 cents, which is more than three times the cost of energy efficiency and nearly twice that of recent land-based wind power contracts. If the number is even in the ballpark, locking in big purchases of imported hydropower and sinking billions into new transmission lines to carry it are hardly a recipe for energy savings. It appears that the New England States Committee on Electricity analysis, on which the Governors’ plan rests, inexplicably assumed that the cost would be four times less than the published figures used in CLF’s analysis.

 • 70 percent (the carbon pollution of natural gas power over the next decade). That’s the greenhouse gas emissions that can be expected, according to Hydro-Québec’s own scientific research, during the first 10 years following the construction of a new large-scale hydropower facility, such as the Romaine River project.

The research assesses the net carbon effects of flooding vast boreal forests, which ultimately releases stored carbon in the inundated vegetation and eliminates the forests' capacity to take carbon out of the air. This peer-reviewed science utterly debunks the false assumption, at the core of the governors’ plan, the hydropower plank of Massachusetts' climate plan and Northern Pass' ubiquitous marketing, that imported hydropower has no or minimal emissions. If new imports come from new dams in Canada and replace natural gas, the promised emissions reductions through the end of the next decade — the make-or-break decade to avoid catastrophic climate change — are overstated by more than threefold.

 • 24 (times Hydro-Québec chose to curtail exports in one cold month of winter 2014). That’s according to an internal NESCOE document. In other words, at times of greatest electric system stress and despite very high wholesale market prices, Hydro-Québec chose not to send power south, presumably to meet Québecers’ needs. This number casts considerable doubt on the reliability benefits of building more transmission lines for hydro imports, which could go unused or underutilized during the cold weather periods when, the governors say, we need more power for reliability.

Before we go further down the road of levying a multi-billion dollar tax on electric customers to finance new gas pipeline and hydropower transmission lines, we need public debate and transparent scrutiny of all data and assumptions used by the governors. If they have badly miscalculated, as these ugly numbers suggest, New England can go back to the drawing board to pursue energy solutions that meet our short- and long-term energy needs without putting our pocketbooks, climate and electric system at risk.

Christophe Courchesne of East Kingston is a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation in Concord.

Categories: Opinion