Latest Research: Northern Pass Worse for the Climate than Advertised

Feb 14, 2012 by  | Bio |  10 Comment »

Hydro-Québec hydroelectric projects recently commissioned or under construction (Source: Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources and Wildlife)

Reducing the region’s emissions of greenhouse gases is supposedly the Northern Pass project’s marquee public benefit, its raison d’être as they say in Québec. But would the Northern Pass project do the job?

The answer appears to be: probably not any time soon. Today, CLF is releasing a ground-breaking new technical report regarding the greenhouse gas emissions of Canadian hydropower. The conclusions of the report show that large-scale hydropower, especially new reservoirs, is worse for the climate than Northern Pass’s developers are claiming, with substantial greenhouse gas emissions that are comparable to those of modern natural gas-fired power plants. The current Northern Pass proposal substitutes hydropower for natural gas in New England’s energy mix, meaning that the project won’t reduce emissions by much if any, especially in the near term.

Authored by Synapse Energy Economics, the technical report released today, Hydropower Greenhouse Gas Emissions: State of the Research, is an independent survey of the recent science regarding the greenhouse gas emissions of hydropower. The science is clear that the reservoirs behind hydropower dams emit greenhouse gases, relative to the forests and wetlands they flood (which often take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere). Overall, reservoirs in Québec emit more greenhouse gases over the course of their lives than renewables like wind, solar, and run of river hydropower.

A crucial finding of the report concerns new reservoirs. In the first several years after a reservoir is dammed, large amounts of newly inundated organic material decompose, emitting carbon dioxide that diffuses through the water into the atmosphere. As a result, a reservoir’s net emissions in its early years are very high – starting out even higher than emissions from a natural gas power plant per unit of power generated. This effect is evident in recent, rigorous analyses by several teams of scientists, based on data collected at Hydro-Québec’s Eastmain 1 reservoir in northern Québec. This reservoir is the very same project that Northeast Utilities’ CFO testified under oath last year would be the primary, if not exclusive, source of Northern Pass’s power. Even when their emissions are projected over their lifetimes, newly flooded Canadian reservoirs may emit nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gases emitted by natural gas power plants. By contrast, reservoirs emit only about 20% of the greenhouse gases emitted by typical coal-fired power plants.

This conclusion is the death knell for Northern Pass Transmission, LLC’s (NPT) claim that the current Northern Pass proposal would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 5 million tons. We explained the claim’s key flaw – the report on which it is based erroneously assumes that hydropower has no greenhouse gas emissions – back in August. In light of today’s report, CLF is calling on NPT and its partners NU, NSTAR, and PSNH to stop citing that erroneous number and to withdraw all marketing materials for the Northern Pass project that state or imply that Canadian hydropower has no or minimal greenhouse gas emissions. Hydro-Québec is building new hydropower projects that are intended to facilitate new exports to the northeastern United States. To the extent that the prospect of exports is driving the construction of new reservoirs, Northern Pass and projects like it will be responsible for those reservoirs’ emissions and also their other adverse environmental impacts. And if, as the developers’ analysis concluded, the power to be displaced by imports through Northern Pass is overwhelmingly from natural gas plants, the emissions from a succession of new reservoirs in Canada may replace – perhaps completely for a period of time – the emissions of displaced natural gas power. In that scenario, the Northern Pass project would do little – or even nothing – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the near-term.

The report makes another critical point about a different kind of displacement that could occur with Northern Pass. According to a recent study, stepping up Hydro-Québec’s exports to the United States may actually decrease its exports to other provinces in Canada, where the need for fossil fuel-fired power then increases, resulting in additional emissions. Those emissions may cancel out any reductions from displaced power in the United States. This effect is a potential blind spot that needs to be considered and analyzed as part of the public review of any new imports.

The report’s findings are important information regarding the environmental impacts of the project that the U.S. Department of Energy must consider as part of its review of Northern Pass’s application for a Presidential Permit. For that reason, earlier today, CLF submitted the report to DOE along with Synapse’s analysis of the potential effect of Northern Pass on the regional market for renewable energy.

To CLF, the report suggests that new imports could be part of the region’s climate strategy if imports:

  • displace dirty power, like project sponsor PSNH’s uneconomic, subsidized power plants, to achieve a meaningful net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without increasing the use of fossil fuel-fired power plants in Canada;
  • support – rather than undermine – local renewable projects and energy efficiency efforts in New England; and
  • have minimal impacts on the environment and communities on both sides of the border.

PSNH is in a unique position to take its coal units offline, in conjunction with its potential power purchase agreement with Hydro-Québec that is supposedly in the works. Instead, PSNH is marching on with its broken coal-based business model at great cost to New Hampshire consumers and the environment. Unless the proposal changes, the Northern Pass project does not deliver on the developers’ claims and will not advance a cleaner energy future for New England.

10 Responses to “Latest Research: Northern Pass Worse for the Climate than Advertised”

  1. Tom Mullen

    These revelations confirm what we have been suspecting ever since the hot air about Northern Pass began flowing from Quebec down to New Hampshire. The hydro power is produced at the expense of clean air and in fact, it is far from a source of green energy. And this report doesn’t even get into some of the worst culprits arising from the resevoirs — methane gas and mercury laden fish causing havoc with the native indian tribes’ food chain.

  2. Martin Murray

    Working to reduce state and regional carbon emissions

    “…The Task Force recommends that New Hampshire strive to
    achieve a long-term reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of
    80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050…”
    New Hampshire Climate Action Plan, 2009

    Is it any wonder that the New Hampshire Climate Change Policy Task Force recommended 67 separate actions as a means toward achieving its aggressive goal to significantly reduce emissions of carbon? The fact is that there is no one single solution to the challenge.
    The Plan’s recommendations run the gamut – from honing energy efficiency programs, to promoting stricter fuel economy standards.
    One action of the 67 is particularly relevant to The Northern Pass project:

    Enable Importation of Canadian Hydro and Wind Generation
    “…To the extent that it reduces or does not raise electricity
    rates to the consumer, high voltage transmission lines should
    be built to import clean power generated from Canadian hydro
    and wind sources as a complementary policy to developing
    non-CO2-emitting generation in New Hampshire. Canada is
    developing vast new hydro and wind generation resources,
    which are greater than their local needs. This creates an opportunity for New Hampshire and the entire Northeast to
    obtain clean power…”
    (EGU Action 2.6)

    The fact is, there is little debate in New Hampshire or elsewhere on whether or not hydropower from Canada will result in reduced carbon emissions. It will. The challenge is over how to import such energy; how to transmit that low carbon energy in a manner that makes sense from both an economic and engineering perspective – and, that also is respectful of New Hampshire’s environment and natural landscape.

    That is why we found it surprising that the Conservation Law Foundation would expend resources to purchase a study challenging the total carbon reduction that may be achieved when The Northern Pass is complete.

    It is ironic, too, in that the developers of the CLF study, Synapse Energy, is the same firm that touted a similar hydropower project as a replacement for the energy produced by a nuclear power plant – which emits zero carbon:

    “…(T)he Champlain Hudson Power Express … would connect Quebec to New York City. It will bring a significant amount of renewable generation directly to New York City…”
    Indian Point Energy Center Nuclear Plant Retirement Analysis
    Synapse Energy Economics, Inc, Oct. 2011

    We want to assure the CLF that we share its interest and commitment to protecting and improving New England’s environment. In keeping with the NH Climate Action Plan, we believe that The Northern Pass can be an effective part of a comprehensive overall strategy to reduce emissions of carbon.

  3. Franklin Platt

    This is a stretch to claim that inundated vegetation will eventually emit significant greenhouse gases. It is also counterproductive: Do we not want more hydro power? But look at the science. Northern Pass will be a giant electric heater stretched across most of NH. The amount of energy completely wasted as heat could well exceed the electrical needs of most of northern NH. Why? DC power does not transmit, so the line losses will be substantial, maybe as much as 30% of the power put on the the line in Canada will not make it to the end. Sure, hydro power is cheap, but why waste so much of it by using DC transmission? Why, indeed? Who stands to profit? Convince of force NPT to: 1) Convert to AC at the Canadian border, 2) Put their lines underground (as most of the world now does), and 3) Give NH some of the power it would otherwise throw away. Their project would likely cost them less money, operating costs would be far less, the infrastructure could be well protected and resilient, and both MA and CT would benefit from cheap power, BTW: let’s see how many wind turbines are destroyed by the next hurricane, terrorist attack, or vandalism?

    • Will Flagg

      I believe that DC does in fact have lower line losses than AC. I find the DC aspect of current QH line in VT interesting from engineering point of view. The only problem with DC is that there are no cheap/easy ways to change voltage in the local distribution system.

      Will Flagg

  4. Christophe Courchesne

    Tom – Your concern about contamination of wildlife and food chains is extremely important, and it is yet another impact that needs to be disclosed and evaluated. Thanks for raising it.

    Franklin – We hope you will read the report, which summarizes the most recent research and confirms that inundated vegetation is a significant source of greenhouse gases and that reservoirs are net carbon emitters, with emissions in the early years following construction exceeding natural gas-fired generation. Moreover, the message here is that large-scale hydropower is not a panacea and has often-overlooked environmental trade-offs. You do raise important questions regarding line loss and alternatives. We certainly do agree that the alternatives you mention deserve full consideration, and that’s why we’re pushing so hard for the permitting agencies to analyze all reasonable alternatives to the current proposal. Thanks for your comments.

  5. Laura Bonk

    It is impossible to make and transport electricity without causing environmental degradation. There are tradeoffs that need to be accurately understood.

    Northern Pass goal is to make as much profit as possible. The business does not care about what is best for the environment. They care about what is best for their stockholders.

  6. Kris

    Thank you for researching and publishing this information. It is so important for people to know that large hydro reservoirs are not ‘green.’
    According to an article in the Montreal Gazette from 4/2011, About 10 years ago Hydro-Quebec hired Eric Duchemin and several of his colleagues from the Institut des sciences de l’environnement at the University of Quebec in Montreal, to study greenhouse gas emssions from their reservoirs. He said Hydro-Quebec refused to publish his data which showed significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions being released into the atmosphere, more that twice as much as HQ was willing to admit. Hydro-Quebec covered over Duchemin’s findings, claiming the greenhouse gas emission numbers were low. According to Duchemin, HQ did this so it could claim carbon credits that could be sold through an international carbon trading system for millions of dollars.
    The Northern Pass project promoters obviously know that Hydro-Quebec is not ‘green’ or ‘renewable.’ Patrick McDermott, economic & community developement manager for PSNH, admits in a speech he gave at the Utility Economic Developement Association’s Winter Forum, that ‘large scale hydro-power does not qualify as renewable energy under NH law & would not contribute to NH’s goal of 25% RPS by 2025.’ In spite of this, Northern Pass, in their quest for gold, continues to promote their project as clean, green & renewable, blatantly lying to the public.

  7. Alain Tremblay

    Québec Hydropower: long-term climate benefits

    A study prepared for the Conservation Law Foundation by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., a private consulting firm, confirms that large-scale hydropower emits far less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels.

    Unfortunately, however, by claiming that reservoir hydro emission ranges are likely higher than those for at least some other renewable options, Synapse’s analysis contains a basic flaw by attempting to cherry-pick data from a recent study on emissions from the Eastmain 1 reservoir in Québec.

    Synapse incorrectly assumes that emissions from the Eastmain 1 reservoir would average 158,000 tons of CO2e per year on a long-term basis over a period of 100 years. This figure is in fact the amount of emissions per TWh generated, but only referring to energy generated by the Eastmain-1 generating station.

    For 93 of the 100 years in question, beginning in 2012, water from the Eastmain 1 reservoir will also run turbines at the Eastmain-1-A generating station, bringing total annual energy output up to 6.7 TWh. The corresponding GHG emissions would thus be approximately 54 tons CO2 equivalent per GWh.

    Moreover, GHG emissions vary among generating station depending, among other factors, on the size of the reservoir and the energy generated. It is therefore inaccurate to extrapolate the findings related to a single generating station and apply these values to an entire hydropower production fleet. The GHG emissions from the energy generated by Hydro-Québec’s entire production fleet, composed of 60 generating stations of which more than two-thirds are run-of-the-river installations, average 10-20 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per GWh.

    The facts on hydropower emissions, using a life-cycle analysis approach over a period of 100 years, are actually quite simple. Québec hydropower emissions are:

    • similar to those from wind power
    • only a quarter of those from photovoltaic solar facilities
    • 40 times less than those from a gas-fired power plant
    • about 100 times less than those from a coal-fired plant.

    In addition to improving air quality – hydropower generation produces none of the pollutants responsible for acid rain and smog – exporting this clean, reliable source of electricity avoided the emission of 41 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in North America between 2008 and 2010. That’s roughly equal to the annual emissions from about 10 million vehicles.

    The major environmental challenge facing North America is to replace coal to generate power and oil used in transportation. By supplying neighboring markets, notably in New England, with renewable, competitively priced and reliable energy, Hydro-Québec contributes to the fight against climate change and air pollution.

    Alain Tremblay, M.Sc., Ph.D.
    Environment Advisor
    Hydro-Québec Production

    • Christophe Courchesne

      The following response is very similar to a response we made to a virtually identical comment by Dr. Tremblay on an earlier blog post, which we have, unsuccessfully, attempted to discuss with him directly.

      Dr. Tremblay –

      We certainly agree that “[t]he major environmental challenge facing North America is to replace coal to generate power and oil used in transportation.” In this regard, it is unacceptable (and baffling) that the Northern Pass project, as proposed, would result in very little or no replacement of coal-fired power, including the power plants that the principal American developer itself controls.

      With respect to Northern Pass, CLF’s fundamental goal is to air a complete account of the energy and environmental implications of the project, including the GHG emissions of the power source. The American developers of Northern Pass have claimed, on numerous occasions, that generation in Canada is effectively “zero-carbon,” and HQ’s own studies contradict that claim. Moreover, a key issue is whether Northern Pass and other export efforts are driving project development, along with the elevated emissions that follow impoundment. If so (as HQ’s strategic plan states and NU’s CFO recently stated under oath), it is certainly not the complete picture to cite system GHG emissions as the relevant metric for understanding Northern Pass’s climate impacts. (It is also important to understand the basis for system emissions figures, and whether they reflect the outdated assumption that emissions from reservoirs begin low and then stabilize at zero or they account for the latest research that predicts higher emissions that are relatively low when compared with most fossil sources.)

      Synapse’s report summarizes the best and most recent published research, and all assumptions are documented and explained in the report and the cited references. In particular, we appreciate and acknowledge the significance of the Eastmain studies, as they reflect a serious and sophisticated effort to measure net carbon emissions from reservoirs taking into consideration pre-impoundment vegetation and other conditions, something that standard measurements of emissions from HQ’s many other reservoirs cannot incorporate. The early spike in emissions is significant and well-documented in the data, which also predicts important long-term emissions as well. We find it significant that, as the Synapse report documents, newly developed hydropower has as much as 2/3 and certainly a substantial percentage of natural gas’s GHG emissions even over a 100 year timeframe (far exceeding the useful life of new natural gas plants).

      We would also suggest there is considerable uncertainty about the role of Eastmain-1-A, the water for which is carried into the Eastmain-1 reservoir by the Rupert River project. As the cited research reflects, the reduction in emissions that you cite does not consider the carbon emissions associated with new Rupert-related impoundments, so the predicted reduction per unit of energy generated deserves additional scrutiny and explanation.

      We would welcome additional references on the net avoided emissions from HQ exports today, and would be interested to learn how they account for Quebec’s off-hour imports of power from fossil-dominated neighboring systems, including ISO-NE. Any references you can provide supporting your comparison of hydropower to other renewable technologies would also be welcome.

      Thanks for your post here, and we hope to have a real dialogue in future posts and other venues.

      Christophe Courchesne
      Staff Attorney
      CLF New Hampshire