Hydro-Québec Power for New England

Erin LaVoie

The Vermont Public Service Board recently approved a contract for Vermont utilities to buy power from Hydro-Québec for 20 years.  The new contract will supply about 20% of Vermont’s power needs, bringing 225 MW of power into Vermont to replace an expiring contract for 310 MW.  The starting price for the power is about $58.07 per MWh and will be adjusted annually based on regional electricity prices.  Vermont regulators found the agreement provides Vermont financial benefits by locking in a stable price that is lower than many other sources of electricity.  Contracts such as this represent only the tip of the iceberg for power imports from Québec, as Hydro-Québec partners to build transmission lines through New York and New Hampshire.

Hydro-Québec is a government-owned utility with some nuclear and fossil fuel plants, 60 hydroelectric generating stations, including seven new dams built since 2000, and significant new expansions on the horizon, including 3,000 MW of new hydropower projects in Québec’s far north as part of the province’s $80 billion “Plan Nord.”  Because Hydro-Québec supplies more than enough power for its own region, the expansion represents Hydro-Québec’s commitment to selling more power to other areas, including New England.

Regulators quickly approved the contract, citing its purported value as a relatively low-carbon and low-cost power source.   However, importing vast amounts of power from Québec is no “green” silver bullet.  Last October, CLF highlighted troubling aspects of the power deal between Hydro-Québec and Vermont utilities. CLF showed that the power deal falls short by failing to honestly represent its environmental impacts.  A few of the problems with the deal:

  • Without adequate verification, the environmental claims aren’t necessarily accurate.  A portion of the claimed “clean power” could really be coming from coal or other fossil fuels.  Under the contract, the energy sold must be 90% hydropower, but without any independent verification, it is impossible to ensure that Vermont gets what it bargained for.
  • The contract fails to address impacts of new dams that would flood vast areas of northern Québec. Nothing in the contract limits Hydro-Québec’s ability to build new dams as demand for energy grows; this means the contract with Vermont tacitly supports new dams and the resulting damage.
  • The contract allows Vermont utilities to sell the renewable claims elsewhere when Vermont itself has no firm obligation to keep its energy supply low-carbon.  Unlike other New England states, Vermont has no requirement now to purchase renewable power. This means that Vermont utilities benefit financially from a system it is not truly a part of, and would allow other states to continue to rely on dirty power sources such as coal.

As a region, we must ensure any new commitments to import power from Canada clearly advance our clean power goals.  Any new imports of hydropower should replace the power we are currently getting from coal and other dirty, inefficient power plants.  Only then can we actually lower our carbon emissions from electricity.   The challenge for New England is to make sure any level of imports meets our needs, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and avoids exporting environmental problems to the north.  Indeed, that challenge is why CLF is calling for a comprehensive, regional analysis of imports from Canada within the Northern Pass permitting process.  CLF continues to push for greater reliance on cleaner energy resources and to demand honest evaluations and representations of environmental benefits and impacts.

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