Quiet and Hardworking: Energy Efficiency

Apr 8, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

We all know them. Every family and office has at least one. That quiet and hardworking member of the team that day in and day out gets the job done.

No fanfare needed. Just consistently delivering results.

In the world of energy, that quiet and hardworking team member is energy efficiency. Every day, it cuts costs and cuts pollution, both for electricity and for heating. In doing so, it makes us better prepared for the future when climate change demands that we move away from fossil fuels and rely on cleaner and lower cost electricity.

At about half the cost of generating electricity, energy efficiency remains the lowest cost electric power resource. If we didn’t cut electric energy use with energy efficiency we would pay twice as much to buy that power from a power plant.

For more than a decade, Vermont has been a leader in relying on cleaner and low cost energy efficiency. In practical terms, our efficiency investments have avoided building new, expensive and polluting power plants, and has reduced the fossil fuels needed to heat our homes. Our reliance on efficiency also frees up energy for new uses such as heat pumps and transportation.

Energy efficiency is simply part of any sensible long-term energy strategy.

Here are some numbers:

In the past 13 years, electric efficiency in Vermont has produced savings of over 12.7 million megawatt hours. That is equal to the power needed to supply every home in Vermont for five years.

For 2014, energy efficiency met 13.3 percent of Vermont’s electric supply needs, an increase over 2013.

At the same time, electric energy efficiency in Vermont cut polluting greenhouse gas emissions by 8.7million metric tons since 2000. That is equivalent to reducing pollution by taking 1.8 million cars off the road each year.

But that is only part of the story. The regional New England grid operator recognizes the clear value of energy efficiency and holds it to high standards. Vermont is paid about $4 million dollars every year for its electric energy efficiency contribution to meeting the region’s power needs. Not only is that money reinvested in Vermont, and reduces fossil fuel use for heating, it lowers electric power costs for everyone in the region.

And in terms of electric transmission, Vermont’s investments in energy efficiency have deferred building over $279 million dollars of new electric transmission lines over the next decade.

From ski areas to grocery stores to homes and manufacturing, our energy efficiency efforts produce real results. Vermont’s employers are not only cleaner businesses, but also more competitive. For example, seventy five percent of Vermont ski areas have switched to more efficient snowmaking equipment, installing 2700 new snow guns that use up to 85% less energy to operate. That is a savings for all of us.

For such a quiet and hardworking resource, it is troubling that it has been caught in a political buzz saw this year. Energy efficiency was taken political hostage and cut as part of a new energy bill. We all know politics is not pretty. But it is sad when such shenanigans trump common sense, good policy and sound economics.

Rather than reward this quiet and hardworking team member, its ability to perform and deliver savings is being cut. Going forward, this means we will all pay more and pollute more.

It is time to make sure we rely on the cleanest and lowest cost resources. We should not leave real savings on the table and should not let politics elbow out the common sense solutions that benefit all Vermonters.

Time to Act: Guest Post by Olivia Gieger

Mar 6, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Last fall, CLF, Mass Energy Consumers Alliance, and four youth plaintiffs filed suit against the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection for failing to fully comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act. In this guest post, one of the teen plaintiffs, Olivia Gieger, explains why she’s joined the court fight to defend her climate future.

As a sophomore in high school, I am all too familiar with procrastination. That group project assigned a month ago and now due tomorrow? We had a month; why start early? It’s a group project; won’t someone else do it? In my experience, I can tell you, those all-nighter–inducing group projects never turn out well.

Don’t be the sophomore in high school.

This 2015, we have the technology to know that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are rising at an alarmingly fast rate. We’ve had this technology since 1960 when carbon dioxide levels were at 315 parts per million (ppm). Now they’re at 395 ppm(1). We know that this carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which captures heat energy and slows its release from air. While greenhouse gases are necessary in our atmosphere and are needed to keep us warm, an unnatural amount is strikingly dangerous. More greenhouse gases mean more heat held in the atmosphere, which means a hotter Earth.

Side effects of global warming are countless, and they are happening today. Sea levels are rising. Ice caps are melting. Forest fires are raging. Downpours are constant in the Northeast, yet droughts are ever more present in the West(2).

But, really, why should I care? Melting ice caps and a couple less polar bears don’t really affect me, right? I don’t live in California, so those wildfires don’t affect me, either. But other people are being impacted by the wildfires, the melting ice caps, the rising temperatures. The scary reality is that we all are. I may not know anyone who lives in California, but that’s where my food is grown. If there are droughts and wildfires, how is my family supposed to get some of our favorite fruits and vegetables that don’t grow here in Boston during the winter? And those melting ice caps affect a whole lot more than polar bears. When they melt, sea levels rise – not just at the North Pole, but globally. This means my favorite beaches on Martha’s Vineyard will be washed away. It means my favorite restaurants and museums – even my neighborhood – here in Boston will be underwater in my lifetime.

In order to do something about these concerns, I have filed a lawsuit, along with three other youth plaintiffs, against the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), because DEP has been procrastinating in fully complying with the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). The GWSA requires DEP to pass regulations establishing declining greenhouse gas emissions limits for Massachusetts. But DEP has not done so. The purpose of the lawsuit is to force DEP to comply with the law, because it appears unwilling to do so on its own. Thanks to the support from my lawyers at Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak, & Cohen and Our Children’s Trust, we will ensure that DEP complies with the law.

So now my question is why? Why are we as a society being sophomores in high school about this? Why are we just waiting for someone else to solve this massive problem? We know the problems, and, better yet, we know the solutions. Using clean, renewable energy is one solution. Enough energy from the sun enters the Earth in one hour to power it for an entire year(3). This energy is unlimited, harmless to the environment, and virtually free. Sounds to me like it tops fossil fuels any day. It’s not just solar energy, however – wind power and hydropower are also unlimited and harmless to the environment. So why then are we oblivious to this? Why are we so incapable of making a change? We need to stop procrastinating. It is long past the time to include, encourage, and execute programs with wind and solar power as the energy of America. We cannot afford to be sophomores anymore; it’s time to graduate.

Works Cited:

  1. Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL (www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/) and Dr. Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography (scrippsco2.ucsd.edu/).
  2. “The Current and Future Consequences of Global Change.”Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. National Air and Space Association, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
  3. “Solar Power Energy Information, Solar Power Energy Facts.”National Geographic. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

Public Hearing: TDI Transmission Project – Vermont

Feb 18, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The Vermont Public Service Board will be holding a public hearing on a very large scale electric transmission project proposed in Vermont.

TDI Transmission Project
Tuesday evening, February 24, 2015
7:00 pm
Fair Haven Union High School, (Band Room)
33 Mechanic Street, Fair Haven, Vermont

The project proposed by TDI is planned to go underneath Lake Champlain from the Canadian Border through to Benson, Vermont, and will then connect with existing transmission facilities in Ludlow, Vermont, to serve customers in Southern New England. You can see the full project filing here.

This is one of the largest transmission projects proposed for New England. The project is planned to carry more than 1,000 MW of power – more than is needed to power the entire state of Vermont.

Compared with many other large energy projects, the developers have done a good job to reach out to local towns and interested citizens. The project is planned to be entirely underground and/or under water. The developers are proposing to provide funding for renewable energy and for Lake Champlain clean-up as part of the project.

The Public Service Board still needs to determine that the proposed project promotes the general good of Vermont. Though connected to Vermont facilities, it is not planned to serve Vermont customers. Vermont provides the transmission highway for customers in other parts of New England.

TDI anticipates the project will deliver hydro power from Canadian facilities, but does not have any current contracts. In connection with Northern Pass, a large transmission project proposed for New Hampshire, CLF identified significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions from new large-scale hydro facilities. (See information about Northern Pass here); see information about GHG emissions from large-scale hydro facilities here).

CLF submitted comments in connection with planned federal permits for the TDI Vermont project. You can see CLF’s comments here and here.

In the comments, CLF identified some issues that deserve closer attention:

  1. Power Supply – what is the source and impacts of the power that will be delivered through this project? Will the project deliver power from fossil fuel facilities?
  2. Greenhouse Gas Emissions – What are the GHG impacts of the project? Are the emissions from new large scale hydro facilities fully and fairly evaluated?
  3. Phosphorus Pollution in Lake Champlain – The project will disrupt sediment and release phosphorus in areas that are already polluted with excess phosphorus.
  4. Mercury pollution – Emissions from power plants have deposited toxic mercury in the Lake’s sediments. The disruption of sediment can re-suspend the mercury and make it more available to harm fish and people.

As New England closes coal plants and moves toward cleaner energy supplies, it is important to ensure that new supplies meet our overall power needs and do not increase greenhouse gas emissions or harm our waterways.

New transmission projects should not provide blank checks to import pollution. Instead new projects should clearly reduce pollution impacts.

Come let the Board know what concerns you may have. Tell the Board you want to make sure energy is used wisely and that transmission projects in Vermont provide clean energy to New England.

It is important for the Public Service Board to hear from you.



Mapping the Road to a Low-Carbon Future for the Northeast

Dec 23, 2014 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

“All you need is the plan, the road map, and the courage to press on to your destination.”
–Radio legend Earl Nightingale (1921-1989)

How do we, efficiently and effectively, complete the transition from an energy system rooted in fossil-fuel generation to a much-needed clean energy system for our region? As participants in last week’s Lessons for a Climate & Energy Roadmap 2050 Process for the Northeastern US learned, it takes courage to embark on the collective journey to a low-carbon future, and it helps to bring a map.

Hosted by CLF, CLF Ventures, and The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy’s Center for International Environment & Resource Policy, and sponsored by The Oak Foundation and German Consulate General of Boston, the December 16 event at Tufts University brought together business and government leaders and environmental advocates from the Northeast with their counterparts from Germany and the European Union (EU), Canada, California, and beyond. The goal: explore how the EU’s experience pursuing renewable energy, energy efficiency, and climate protection policies and targets could offer lessons for our region’s clean energy and climate transition.

The Northeast Roadmap 2050 event drew inspiration from the EU Roadmap 2050 process, which convened key stakeholders to shape a shared vision for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the EU at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Here in the northeast US/New England, we have a very similar opportunity. The New England states and New York, along with the Eastern Canadian provinces, have adopted climate goals and mandates that mirror the EU mandate. We have a core of business leaders that can be mobilized, and a number of key energy players here are the same companies that sat at the table for the EU Roadmap 2050 process. Though the questions underlying a similar planning process for the Northeast are simple, the challenges are anything but: Can the leaders of our region articulate the vision of a sane energy transition that leaders and decision-makers in Washington have not? If so, how do we achieve essential buy-in from key regional decision makers, like executives and regulators, to move from a shared vision to an implementable course of action?

During the daylong event, participants joined in person and over videoconference to begin to build a foundation of shared knowledge upon which a Roadmap 2050 process can be built for the Northeast. Among the day’s highlights:

  • Tufts emeritus professor of international environmental policy and lead author on several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports William Moomaw urged participants to accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources and emphasized that such a transformation is essential.
  • Mike Hogan, Senior Advisor to the Regulatory Assistance Project, shared several key lessons learned from the EU Roadmap 2050 process, including:
    • Derive legitimacy from a very broad base of stakeholder participants, including industry, governments, NGOs, governments, and technical experts.
    • Start from a point of broad consensus about the destination. Participants don’t need to agree on how to get there or even if they can get there, as long as they agree on the destination.
    • Focus on shifting the public narrative about what makes sense and re-defining the “middle ground.”
    • Keep everything on the table and take nothing for granted (except the destination).
    • 90 percent of the success of the Roadmap process is just getting people to sit in the room and stay in the room to work together on the process.
  • Dr. Patrick Graichen, Executive Director of Agora Energiewende, a German energy think tank, and Graham Weale, Chief Economist, RWE AG, a leading European utility, presented insights from Germany’s energy transition (Energiewende) and from the German energy industry, including the key role of wind and solar energy, and the importance of building both supply- and demand-side flexibility and strong market mechanisms into a low-carbon energy system.
  • V. John White, Executive Director, Center for Energy Efficiency & Renewable Technologies, offered insights from the ongoing California 2030 Low Carbon Grid Study. Among the Phase I findings:
    • The importance of balancing California’s energy portfolio both technologically and geographically;
    • The need to modernize California’s currently inefficient gas fleet and use gas differently;
    • The increased role of bulk storage and demand response to shift energy demand to different parts of the day and reduce demand on the overall system;
    • The emerging need for California to take a more regional approach to its energy grid.
  • Michael Jasanis (HotZero, LLC and former CEO of National Grid USA),Phil Giudice, CEO and President of Ambri, and Cindy Arcate, CEO and President of PowerOptions, contributed the perspectives of Northeast utility and energy industry leaders.

From the wide range of opinions and insights shared over the course of the day, participants were left with a sense of urgency to accelerate a clean energy transition for the Northeast as well as many questions that remain to be explored. Next steps? Participants expressed interest in a second, follow-up convening that will likely be planned for early 2015, hosted by an organization that can provide a supportive yet outcome-neutral role in advancing a Northeast Roadmap 2050 stakeholder process. Once the process is underway, the group will develop a framework for the multi-sector analysis and modeling work needed to create a powerful vision that will shape governmental and business decision making and that will be owned by a broad and deep regional stakeholder group.

Reset on Vermont Natural Gas Expansion

Dec 21, 2014 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

It’s good news that Vermont Gas Systems announced they will hit the reset button on the planned new natural gas pipeline in Western Vermont. Global warming demands far greater scrutiny of new fossil fuel expansions.

The project costs keep ballooning. In July, cost estimates increased more than 40%. At that time CLF called for a full re-evaluation of the project. Costs estimates have now escalated another 27%.

And those cost increases don’t even look at the increased greenhouse gas emissions from continuing our reliance on fossil fuels.

courtesy of Lucky Larry @ flickr.com

courtesy of Lucky Larry @ flickr.com

In the wake of these cost increases, Vermont Gas asked regulators to put a hold on the hearings for the second phase of the project. These hearings were scheduled to begin in January.

At a time when global warming requires that we move quickly away from reliance on fossil fuels, it is hard to justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new natural gas pipelines that keep us dependent on polluting fossil fuels long into the future.

It is no surprise to CLF that costs are skyrocketing. Expanding reliance on polluting fossil fuels is a bad bet. These natural gas pipelines will be in place for 50 to 100 years. That’s long past the time we need to move away from fossil fuels. Saddling customers with the high costs and increased pollution for decades is irresponsible. We can do better than that.

Our region is undergoing a major transformation of our energy supply. We can seize the opportunities this transformation presents by moving away from polluting fossil fuels and their long-term climate impacts. Going forward we need to rely much more on cleaner renewable energy.

The reset called for by Vermont Gas is a good opportunity to steer our energy future in a cleaner and lower cost direction.

Coming Clean: Strengthening EPA’s Clean Power Plan

Dec 4, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Even if it’s hard for our brains to accept, we all know the impacts to come from climate change if we don’t significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions now and throughout the century: food insecurity, species extinction, and dramatically severe weather events. If that news isn’t sobering enough, we’ll also face a rapidly decreasing ability to adapt to these impacts by the year 2100. In spite of these dire predictions, the fact remains that there are actions that we can and must take to have a chance of slowing the effects of climate change and avoiding the most devastating impacts.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently proposing one of these necessary actions with the Clean Power Plan, a rule intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants that burn fossil fuels. Under the Plan, EPA will lay out the best system of emissions reduction and each state will devise a program to meet those required reductions.

Even before its Monday deadline, EPA had received more than 21,000 comments from interested stakeholders. Given the complexity of the rule and the many interested parties weighing in, CLF submitted a brief, targeted letter highlighting a couple of crucial areas where the Plan should be strengthened to be truly effective. We asked for:

  • a more accurate assessment of the cost-effectiveness of renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, and demand response against which to measure fossil fuel–burning plants, and
  • measures related to natural gas (including regulation of methane emissions from its production, transmission, and distribution).

Without a better strategy for dealing with these two issues, the Plan could backfire and end up fostering powerful economic incentives to simply substitute one polluting fossil fuel for another in our energy system.

Finalizing a strengthened Clean Power Plan would be a step toward fulfilling our country’s responsibility to ourselves and the rest of the world to mitigate climate change. But it’s only one step. Even as we all wait for meaningful federal action on climate change, CLF is continuing to lead crucial efforts to curb harmful greenhouse gas emissions at the state and regional level through smart economic and environmental policy.

Natural Gas Alone is Not a Bridge

Oct 31, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Gas, renewables graph

Figure used pursuant to license agreement with Nature Publishing Group.

A recent study published in Nature confirms that natural gas alone is not a bridge to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  The study finds that, “in the absence of new climate policies, increased supplies of natural gas may have little effect on CO2 emissions and could actually delay decarbonization of the global energy system.” An abundant supply of low cost natural gas competes with and replaces not only dirtier fuels, like coal and oil, but also cleaner resources  such as wind, solar and efficiency.

The Nature study used energy-economic modeling to compare a “conventional” gas supply with an “abundant” supply scenario, and found that expanding natural gas supplies is not a climate panacea: “Whether the goal is avoiding CO2 emissions or hastening the transition to an emissions-free energy system, a global gas boom is not a replacement for energy and climate policies.”

Abundant gas entrenches us more deeply in a high-emissions, climate-compromised future, unless accompanied by robust, additional policies ensuring greater efficiency and a swift transition to low-carbon energy. CLF’s groundbreaking 2014 settlement with Footprint Power, a proposed natural gas-fired power plant sited on the grounds of a closed coal-fired plant in Salem, MA, included binding annual emissions limits and a fixed retirement date of no later than 2050. These conditions tamp down our reliance on natural gas and align plant operation with the timely decarbonization of our energy system..

The Nature study corroborates something CLF has long argued – without strong climate policy, gas is just a bridge to more gas.

Gas Pipeline – A Poor Choice

Oct 29, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

photo courtesy of garlandcannon@flickr.com

photo courtesy of garlandcannon@flickr.com

A healthy sign of maturity is making decisions that recognize longer term benefits and impacts. This holds particularly true for our energy decisions.

In a field as rapidly transforming as our energy sector, it is important to avoid making long term decisions that burden future generations with higher costs and pollution.

The steady march of proposals to build expensive new natural gas pipelines is one example. These are pipelines that will be in place for fifty to one hundred years – long past the time that climate change demands we move away from fossil fuels.

Customers will be paying for these new pipelines for at least fifty years. That is a long time. Kicking the can down the road and burdening future generations masks the real costs of these new pipelines.

Most Vermonters wouldn’t attempt to buy a car now with a 50 year loan. Sure the cost each month may be low, but even frugal Vermonters don’t expect to be driving the same car in 50 years, or saddling their kids with paying for it, and its inefficient fuel use half a century from now.

When the ballooning cost of the Vermont Gas pipeline to Middlebury soared by 40% the project proponents simply pushed the cost of the project on to future generations and then claimed the long payback justified the exorbitant cost increase.

Long term energy investments like a new gas pipeline need to make sense in the face of changing technology. If we simply ignore or gloss over the rapid improvements that new technology brings, we will be left investing in the equivalent of rotary telephones or typewriters when society has moved well beyond them.

Technology innovation and climate change demand that we take a much harder look at expanding our reliance on the use of fossil fuels. Lighting efficiency has improved ten-fold in the past few years thanks to LEDs. At the same time, cold climate heat pumps are rapidly becoming a cleaner and lower cost option for heating and cooling our homes and businesses. The cost of solar power has come down 90% in the past two decades and more homes, businesses and communities are taking advantage of this renewable option.

How does natural gas stack up to these newer, cleaner resources over the long haul? Not very well. That is why it is so disappointing to see Vermont Gas continue to claim that their projects provide benefits when their analysis is only short-term and based on a comparison to oil or propane. In 1974 an electric typewriter looked pretty good. By 1984 it was beginning to gather dust and was out of use entirely less than ten years later.

Addressing climate change demands a similar longer term and more realistic evaluation. If natural gas is expected to be a bridge fuel we rely on for only a few decades, then Vermont customers should not be asked to subsidize a new pipeline for more than 50 years. If a new pipeline is capable of delivering gas that could support a new gas-fired electric generating facility or increased gas use throughout Vermont and New York , then it fails to meet our long-term greenhouse gas reduction needs. And if the supply of gas comes from sources that use hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which produces more air and water pollution, then Vermonters use of gas is not helping the environment, it only exports environmental problems to other communities.

Vermonters deserve energy supplies that are clean, low cost and effective for generations. The rapid transformation of our energy sector means we have the opportunity now to move away from expensive and polluting fossil fuels more quickly than ever– but only if we make decisions based on realistic evaluations that recognize impacts over the long term.

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday October 26, 2014 edition of the Rutland Herald / Times Argus 



Why Is Hydro-Québec So Intent on Overselling Its Hydropower?, Part II

Oct 24, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

CLF has been asking questions about the carbon footprint of large-scale Canadian hydropower since before the Northern Pass project’s inception. I recently raised our concerns in my list of three ugly numbers behind the regional push for more hydropower imports, pointing out that, in the first decade after flooding, greenhouse gas pollution from new hydropower reservoirs can produce 70% as much greenhouse gas pollution as natural gas power plants, according to Hydro-Québec’s own science.

As with our number on new hydropower costs, Hydro-Québec took exception in a press release, asserting that CLF does not understand the science. We obviously disagree. In this post, the second in a series of three, I will break down what Hydro-Québec’s defense of its product gets wrong—on the climate benefits of its hydropower. This will be a deep dive, especially because Hydro-Québec’s press release is so profoundly misleading.


Aurora Borealis over Gouin Reservoir, Québec (photo credit: flickr/-AX-)

Why CLF Cares About Hydropower’s Carbon Footprint

Why is this issue important at all? As our region considers massive new infrastructure to import more hydropower, we need to have a full, honest accounting of the real impacts—on both sides of the border. Greenhouse gas pollution and climate change know no international boundaries, and New England is ultimately responsible for the carbon pollution attributable to its power use.

Getting credible estimates of the climate effects of new imports is especially important because virtually every proponent of new hydropower imports touts reduced emissions as a dominant reason to pursue them. Likewise, federal law and some state statutes require accurate assessments of what new imports of hydropower will mean for New England’s greenhouse gas emissions and how we achieve our short-term and long-term climate goals. To the extent new imports are in the region’s future, something CLF could support with the right conditions, we need honest numbers.

Given that hydropower projects do not have smoke stacks, when I say “carbon pollution” or “greenhouse gas emissions” from hydropower, what do I mean? Reservoirs behind new dams inundate vast geographic areas. For example, the Eastmain reservoir in the James Bay region is roughly 600 square kilometers, or more than three Lake Winnipesaukees. Drowned vegetation and biological material decompose over time and release carbon dioxide and methane into the water column and then into the atmosphere. In addition, the flooding destroys northern forested landscapes that can be potent carbon sinks (and are often called “lungs of the planet”), increasing the net greenhouse gas emissions of the reservoir by the amount of any lost capability to sequester carbon.

The key question is how much net greenhouse gas pollution a reservoir produces for its power output over time. To assess the climate effects of new imports of hydropower, pollution from the facilities supplying the power can be compared with the emissions of displaced power here in New England.

It’s also important to understand the effects in the province supplying the power and in neighboring regions, like New York or Ontario. If Canadian hydropower is merely shifted from those markets to ours and the gap is filled by fossil fuel power plants, the imports won’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions overall.

What Hydro-Québec Gets Wrong About Its Own Research

In its press release, Hydro-Québec says that “CLF asserts that hydropower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are much higher than they actually are … by cherry-picking data contained in a scientific study on emissions from a recently created reservoir in Québec…. What that study really indicates is that hydropower is one of the lowest-emission generating options per kilowatthour produced.”

Here again, as with hydropower costs, Hydro-Québec misstates CLF’s point. The number I cited does not pretend to describe all hydropower, or even all Hydro-Québec hydropower.

The 70% number clearly and expressly describes the emissions from a new large-scale hydropower facility during the first ten years of operation. It is taken directly from peer-reviewed scientific analysis by Hydro-Québec and academic researchers of data collected at the Eastmain 1 reservoir, a new hydropower facility in northern Québec. My blog post includes the relevant graph, presented in a scientific paper that a Hydro-Québec scientist co-authored, showing a direct comparison of these emissions with natural gas and supporting CLF’s statement that a new large-scale hydropower facility can emit 70% of the greenhouse gases of natural gas power plants in the decade following development.

A 100-year life-cycle analysis shows lower long-term emissions, but in a world where climate change is accelerating and we desperately need to reduce emissions now, the early emissions of Hydro-Quebec’s new facilities—several of which are under construction and slated for development in the coming few years—are vitally important. Moreover, it is these new facilities that Hydro-Québec intends to rely on to support new exports to the United States, likely making their carbon footprint more relevant to New England’s current decisions to increase imports than the footprints of existing reservoirs that are supplying Québec customers.

It is worth noting that the 100-year emissions described in the research are much higher than the numbers that Hydro-Quebec’s press release implies that the study confirms. The paper says that 100-year emissions are 40% of the emissions of natural gas power plants, about ten times more than the factor Hydro-Québec quotes and much higher than solar and wind power, which emit no pollution once installed.

While Hydro-Québec says CLF is “cherry-picking” a data point from its research, it ignores that the data point is a key finding of what is now seminal research, which Hydro-Quebec touts on its website as the first time ever that researchers have measured the emissions of a landscape developed for hydropower both before and after flooding:

Project EM-1 is a world first, since this is the first time that GHG emissions are measured before and after the creation of a hydroelectric reservoir. This will make it possible to precisely identify the impact hydroelectric reservoirs have on greenhouse gases.

Despite its billing, Hydro-Québec’s Eastmain research does not provide a full picture. In particular, there are many important differences between hydropower facilities in Québec, and the differences’ effects on reservoir emissions haven’t been fully researched.

For example, Hydro-Québec’s new dams along the Romaine River, now under construction, are creating somewhat smaller reservoirs than Eastmain (collectively, only one and a half Lake Winnipesaukees), suggesting that they might produce less net pollution. However, the flooded landscape along the Romaine and the flooded landscape at Eastmain are quite different. Hydro-Québec’s research at Eastmain suggests that the flooded landscape wasn’t a carbon sink prior to reservoir construction, whereas the landscape along the Romaine is more heavily forested and could provide much more vegetation that will decompose over time as well as a greater value as a carbon sink, which is now being lost.

And of course, the project’s emissions rate depends on how much power the reservoir produces. A vast reservoir that produces a relatively small number of megawatts of power will likely have a higher emissions rate than a smaller reservoir in the same landscape that produces a higher number of megawatts. That’s why true “run-of-river” hydropower facilities, which are powered by the flows in existing rivers and do not require enormous dams or flooding, are much lower carbon resources than large-scale hydropower.

Hydro-Québec’s Faulty Math

So why is Hydro-Québec so upset with CLF’s characterization of the utility’s own groundbreaking research? The core of Hydro-Québec’s disagreement with CLF is this: the utility likes to cite a greenhouse gas emission rate (pollution per unit of energy generated) that assumes its Eastmain reservoir alone powers two generation stations (meaning that the emission rate equals the reservoir’s emissions divided by the output of both stations). When the utility is in charge of the presentation, it highlights this number, which reflects a steep drop in the emission rate after the newer generation station came online by early 2012. The peer-reviewed version of the research, published in 2012, refuses to make that assumption and leaves out the newer generation station from the reservoir’s power output. Why?

The new station (Eastmain 1-A) was constructed to include flows made possible and channeled to the Eastmain reservoir by Hydro-Québec’s massive project to divert the Rupert River. That means that the net effects of the landscape changes associated with the diversion project are key to understanding the emissions of the Eastmain complex as a whole. A major element of the diversion project was the creation of two diversion bays totaling about 350 square kilometers, or the flooding of about two additional Lake Winnepauskees. While Hydro-Québec’s favored number assumes that this flooding has no net effect on emissions, the peer-reviewed research says the effects are unknown and therefore does not include the power from Eastmain 1-A in its calculation of the Eastmain emission rate.

That leaves us with the table from the peer-reviewed paper itself, which is where CLF got its number. We are also informed by the thorough research summary from Synapse Energy Economics on this topic that CLF released more than two years ago, which shows that new hydropower facilities have significantly higher emissions than have been assumed and advertised.

CLF has attempted to engage Hydro-Québec in a serious dialogue on this issue. While there have been several interactions—like this one on our blog after CLF released the Synapse report—we have yet to see anything that meaningfully addresses CLF’s concerns or corrects its misleading public relations campaign.

The Need for Honest Numbers

If this all seems complicated to you, you’re right. The research on hydropower emissions is not complete, and it is probably fair to assume there is significant variation from reservoir to reservoir. Some likely have a larger carbon footprint than Eastmain and some smaller; some are decades old, with relatively low emissions going forward, and others are newer, with a larger carbon footprint now and in the near term.

For many years, policymakers and large-scale hydropower boosters have assumed this complexity away. Hydropower emissions were either presumed to be zero or were pegged at a level based on extrapolations from simple measurements of greenhouse gas emissions from reservoir surfaces, including reservoirs flooded many decades ago. In many cases, including in Canada’s inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, a single miniscule emissions figure is used to characterize all large-scale hydropower facilities. These assumptions are at work in Hydro-Québec’s press release, including in its comparisons to other power sources and its statements about avoided emissions from its energy sales.

We know now that the old simplifying assumptions can be way off, which is one reason why CLF and others have identified a need to “tag” the energy from individual power facilities in Québec that are used for exports to the United States and define, with at least some reasonable approximation, the energy’s source and its environmental attributes and emissions profile.

The developers of the Northern Pass transmission project and Hydro-Québec are continuing their campaign to gloss over the very real greenhouse gas pollution that hydropower projects create. Despite Hydro-Québec’s own research, they are advertising numbers and slogans that inaccurately minimize reservoir carbon footprints or deny the pollution even exists. Unfortunately, it’s also the case that many New England policymakers and the federal officials reviewing Northern Pass’s permit application appear thoroughly disinterested in getting to the bottom of what Canadian hydropower projects really mean for the climate or in insisting on an accurate accounting from Hydro-Québec. For example, we have not received a single substantive response to our August 2013 request that the states meaningfully assess this issue as part of their regional efforts around hydropower imports.

As with the costs of Canadian hydropower, New England deserves honest information about the emissions of the product that Hydro-Québec wants to sell us. Instead of impugning CLF for raising questions, Hydro-Québec and American transmission developers like Northern Pass that want to bring New England its power should start offering New England the basic respect of fair dealing and real numbers.

Coming next in this series, what Hydro-Québec’s defense of its product gets wrong—on the reliability benefits of new imports for the New England electric grid.