The province has “vast resources” of hydroelectric power and wants to send more of it to urban markets where electricity is in high demand.
“If we want to go further and extend our trade, we need to extend our transmission capacity,” Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said during a dinner ceremony with Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin following an energy conference in Burlington on Monday.
Hydro-Quebec, the province’s electric utility, is building four new hydroelectric dams capable of delivering 1,550 megawatts of power — enough electricity to serve 1.5 million New England homes.
The utility exports to New England, New York, Ontario and New Brunswick. The company has 30 terawatt-hours of hydropower available for export, about half of which is contracted to supply utilities in New England. Vermont utilities contract for 1.2 terawatt-hours of electricity.
“I would like to think there is a hydro opportunity for the region,” said Stephen Molodetz, vice president of business development for Hydro Quebec U.S.
To attract investments in transmission lines, Molodetz said the region should split the costs of projects among ratepayers, change project-siting processes and offer a “fuel diversity bonus” for hydropower.
There are two interconnections with New England — an 1,800 MW transmission line to western Massachusetts and a 225 MW line in Vermont. The company is partnering on another transmission line that would carry hydropower from Quebec into New Hampshire. The Northern Pass project has run into stiff public opposition from residents who fear it will scar the White Mountain National Forest.
At least two similar projects are proposed in Vermont by New York-based TDI New England and Massachusetts-based Anbaric. The projects both would pass beneath Lake Champlain and cross underground through southern Vermont. HQ has not publicly announced support for either project.
Environmentalists warn the projects could harm Vermont’s landscape. And other alternatives, such as upgrades to existing interconnections, have not been considered, according to Sandra Levine, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation.
CLF is a party in a regulatory case involving TDI New England’s application for a state permit to build a 1,000 megawatt, $1.2 billion transmission line under Lake Champlain. She said the project has environmental impacts yet to be fully studied.
“For the most part, they are digging up a big trench and placing down a transmission line and waiting for the sediment to settle. It releases sediment into the lake. And releases phosphorous. There is also heat associated with the transmission line during its operation that has an impact on the critters and plants that live in the water and that live at the bottom of the lake,” she said.
Vermont’s energy history with Quebec
The University of Vermont hosted the two-day conference this week to discuss the region’s energy relationship as well the social and economic impact of hydropower. The conference opened by focusing on Vermont’s history with Quebec. Shumlin said the relationship to Quebec is “absolutely critical” to Vermont’s energy future.
He said hydropower has helped the state’s economy and provided baseload generation to help build out other renewables such as wind and solar. Vermont was the first to consider large-scale hydropower as renewable energy.
“We were the first state to call hydropower green power regardless of size,” Shumlin said Monday night.
Vermont utilities first contracted for power from Hydro-Quebec in 1987. The state then replaced the contract that began in 2012 to supply 225 megawatts of power for 26 years, which is about a quarter of Vermont’s consumption.
But as Quebec brings new dams online, First Nation communities displaced by reservoirs say they still struggle to have a say in new projects. For decades, First Nation communities have been pushed aside for development projects, according to Ghislain Picard, the chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador.
“We find ourselves in 2015 very frustrated. The political process has not evolved as much as the issue itself has evolved,” Picard said.
In the 1990s, when early projects were being constructed, Picard said the Cree people traveled to New England in search of support.
“You’re one of the consumers of our hydro. It’s important for you to realize that the bigger the demand is, the more impact it has on our lands where we still continue to hunt and fish,” Picard said.
Since 1975, HQ has signed about 30 agreements with First Nation communities regarding development projects. Molodetz, of HQ, said the company has a process to consider local support for development projects.
“HQ takes it very seriously,” he said. “The projects don’t move forward if it’s not accepted by the community through that process.”
Quebec could avoid building new dams if it improved its own energy conservation, some advocates say. Low electricity prices — about 8 cents per kilowatt-hour for residential customers — and demand for electric heating has created relatively high electricity consumption in the province.“We’re not very good in energy efficiency, let’s say it. Someone said to me the other day, ‘You are the Hummers of green energy,’” said Pierre Arcand, Quebec’s’ Minister of Energy and Natural Resources.
Vermont officials say there may an opportunity for Vermont to help drive down Quebec’s electricity consumption by expanding efficiency programs that have been successful here. Quebec officials agree.
“One area where Vermont can help us is in the area of energy efficiency,” Arcand said.
Environmentalists say hydropower should be used to balance intermittent renewables, like wind and solar, and not replace them. They point out that traditional hydropower floods large areas of land that affects wildlife, native populations and releases greenhouse gas emissions.
“We should not be writing a blank check to destroy vast areas of northern Quebec to satisfy an energy appetite in southern New England. It’s great we’re closing down coal plants, but we shouldn’t be trading one environmental disaster for another,” Levine said.