Getting It Right in the Regional Process for Canadian Hydropower Imports

John Kassel

For a question as big, complicated and important as what role new imports of Canadian hydropower should play in New England’s energy future, it takes more than two lines in a press release to answer it. Indeed, we at CLF have been working on this issue for years. So, it’s worth explaining in a little more depth how a new initiative announced this week could help the region come up with a sound answer that serves the public interest. The “could” is crucial, because the initiative follows in the wake of a series of poorly conceived transmission (Northern Pass) and subsidy (Connecticut and Rhode Island energy legislation) proposals that ignored key questions and advanced narrow interests.

What we know: the major Canadian utilities want to sell more power into our markets and have been executing plans to build massive new hydropower facilities and to develop new transmission corridors into and through New England.

What we don’t know: are new large-scale hydropower imports the right move for New England? In particular:

  • Will new imports supply cost-effective power to the region – i.e., with economic benefits that exceed impacts?
  • Will new imports actually help reduce the region’s greenhouse gas emissions?
  • Will new imports diminish the impetus for renewable energy projects that are based in New England?
  • Will new imports displace the dirtiest power on the regional grid?
  • Will new imports drive more and more development of costly and environmentally damaging hydropower projects in Canada?
  • How many and what kind of new transmission projects do we need (if any), and are the community and environmental burdens and benefits of those projects shared equitably?
  • What are the energy alternatives to new imports and are they a better solution to the region’s energy needs?

On Monday, five New England states announced that they would be initiating a process that could lead to a large procurement of Canadian hydropower. Almost all the details remain to be worked out, with the New England States Committee on Electricity (NESCOE) – an organization that represents the shared interests of New England state governments in electric energy policy – managing the effort. NESCOE also is implementing the New England states’ initiative to procure renewable energy from qualifying sources, to satisfy the goals of the states’ Renewable Portfolio Standard programs.

As I indicated in the press release on the initiative, CLF is optimistic that NESCOE’s procurement process could help New England define the right role for new hydropower imports. In fact, if done well, the procurement process could provide a version of the regional assessment and strategic plan for hydropower imports that CLF and others have been advocating for more than two years. What would “done well” mean?

  • The process must include, up front, a sound, technical analysis of the region’s long-term need for new hydropower imports in the context of the many alternatives, including renewable energy, distributed generation, and energy efficiency efforts that exist here in New England.
  • The process must be carefully structured to assure a level playing field that properly values the most intelligent strategies to meet the states’ climate and economic goals, with no special preferences for particular companies and no ratepayer-financed windfalls.
  • The process must honestly, rigorously, and credibly analyze the potential climate benefits of new imports, in light of the unequivocal science that large-scale hydropower projects and especially new facilities result in significant greenhouse gas emissions and that most net reductions will likely be over the long term, not the short term.
  • The process must fairly and equitably allocate properly-accounted greenhouse gas emissions impacts among the participating states, as states like Massachusetts and Connecticut look to make good on their legal obligations under their Global Warming Solutions Acts to reduce emissions.
  • The process must acknowledge and avoid rewarding the considerable environmental damage associated with large-scale hydropower development in Canada, especially the additional dam projects that new imports may facilitate.
  • The process must disavow the early, troubling signs that it could be used as a vehicle specifically to promote Northeast Utilities’ current, fatally flawed Northern Pass proposal through New Hampshire.
  • The process needs to bring New Hampshire to the table, as a willing and empowered participant.
  • The process must assure that new imports complement, not undermine, renewable energy development in New England, in order to assist in the beneficial development of wind and other renewable projects and to help the states in meeting their existing renewable energy goals and mandates.
  • If new transmission solutions are needed, it is essential that the process ensure that developers pursue the lowest-impact technologies and routing options.

As I said, it’s complicated. But there’s a real opportunity to get it right, and CLF is committed to ensuring we make that happen.

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