Small States Grapple With Big Canadian Hydropower

Peterborough, NH, USA — In New Hampshire a major transmission project that was announced last year is spurring discussion about what should qualify as renewable energy and what the goals of renewable portfolio standards ought to be. 

The project, known as The Northern Pass, is set to construct a 140-mile high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission line from the Canadian province of Quebec into neighboring New Hampshire.  The line will carry 1200 MW of emission-free electricity from Hydro-Quebec’s hydropower facilities into the state of New Hampshire and through to its neighboring New England states.

The issues are, or course, manifold.  First, there are the NIMBY opponents who worry that a large transmission line like this will wreak havoc on property values in northern NH: ruining viewsheds, endangering wildlife and impacting the tourism trade that the region relies upon to boost its economy.  Opponents have created a website that lists all of their concerns with the clever title, “LiveFreeorFry.org.” (The New Hampshire state motto is “Live Free of Die.”)

But beyond the transmission line itself, deeper issues are coming to the surface.  First, some say large-scale hydropower, the power source that makes up 98% of Hydro-Quebec’s portfolio, is not a renewable resource.  

“Small-scale hydro, especially in-stream designs that don’t require damming and flooding but capture energy as it flows past a turbine in the water without blocking the flow, are quite definitely part of the clean energy solution. Massive hydro projects that completely rewrite an ecosystem–not so much. Hydro-Quebec tends toward the latter,” said Shel Horowitz, Green Marketing Consultant author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green.  

Horowitz, who said he was arrested for demonstrating against Seabrook NH’s nuclear facility in 1977, also admits that he isn’t an expert on hydro. Nonetheless, he isn’t a fan of the flooding that results from damming. “There are very big environmental impacts to large dams,” he said.  Horowitz brought up the Quabin reservoir, which serves as the water supply for the city of Boston.  He explained that back in the 1930s four towns in western MA were evacuated and then flooded to create that reservoir. “Here in Western, MA, the decision to flood those four towns is still being talked about in some circles as grounds for secession from the state,” he said.

Does It Even Matter?  Kind of.

But if you don’t think large-scale hydro should be seen as a renewable resource, you’re not alone – the state of New Hampshire agrees.

Today, the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) expressly prohibits large-scale hydropower from even meeting the goals set forth by the provision.  Only existing electricity from hydroelectric energy sources, provided the facilities began operation prior to January 1, 2006 and have a total nameplate capacity of 5 MW or less, are now eligible.  But a bill introduced in the NH state legislature in early February, HB 302, seeks to strike some of that language from the RPS.  The result of the bill, should it pass, would be that any large-scale hydropower resource that went online after 2006 could qualify as renewable energy under the RPS. 

Some opponents believe that Hydro-Quebec, the developer of the Northern Pass, is putting pressure on state lawmakers to make such amendments to the RPS. Tom Irwin, VP and Director of the Conservaton Law Foundation New Hampshire, writes in his blog that HB 302 is “clearly intended to tilt the playing field in favor of the Northern Pass.  He said that “HB 302 will greatly undermine one of the core purposes of New Hampshire’s RPS law: the stimulation of investment in renewable energy technologies in New England and, in particular, in New Hampshire.”

And that’s the third point of contention here.  Big, utility-scale hydro facilities, especially if they can be applied to meet state RPS goals, could end up stifling the development of a vibrant local renewable energy economy. 

Jobs and Economy at Stake

Mary Beth Gentleman, co-chair of the energy and renewables practice at Foley Hoag said that when it comes to the environmental impact caused by large-scale hydropower, essentially the damage has already been done.  “HydroQuebec’s view is that the facilities that would supply the Northern Pass power have already been built.  So I suppose one could say that there is little incremental impact – whatever impacts that would have occurred, have already occurred,” she said.

She pointed out that the Northern Pass project is viewed as an economic development opportunity for Hydro-Quebec, a company that has been selling large amounts of power into the New England region for decades.  In the beginning that power was seen as extremely helpful in meeting the summertime peak, she said.

The real problem, she said, could be the economic impact that large-scale hydropower could have on the development of renewables in New England. “The concern is what will happen to the jobs and energy independence strategy that is being pursued in the New England states,” Gentleman said. 

On the one hand, she noted that some believe there is plenty of opportunity to develop “indigenous” renewables alongside of any other emission-free low-cost power like hydro that is being brought into the state.  Over the next decade, ISO New England expects to need an additional 400 MW of generating capacity each year to meet electricity demand. With a NH RPS goal of generating 25% of its electricity from renewable energy by 2025, lots of renewables will need to come online in the next 15 years – and much of that will be developed locally.

Further, if you look at the goals that New England states have set for themselves under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to decrease carbon emissions over the next 50 years, “you might conclude that there is no way to do that without substantial amounts of imports,” she said.

Except that a 50-year timeframe — even a 30-year timeframe — is hard to account for.  Today, it’s unknown how technology improvements in the future might increase the adoption rates of renewable energy.  The cost of solar power, for one, has dropped dramatically in the past two years.  In California, just last month an SCE filing to the state’s Public Utilities Commission asked for approval of 20 solar PV projects that are expected to generate electricity for less than the projeced price of energy from natural gas.

Gentleman pointed out that the adoption of offshore wind, too, could end up bringing significant power to the region, at competitive costs in time.  Of course, hydropower is a low-cost energy source right now.

“Because there is no guarantee that the eligibility of large hydro for RECs could occur, there’s – I think, understandably – concern on the part of the companies that are developing indigenous renewables,” Gentleman said.

New Hampshire HB302 has been tabled for now, but there is no guarantee that another one like it couldn’t be reintroduced in the future. The Northern Pass project is undergoing environmental impact studies now and will then be hotly debated heavlly into the futre.

But whether or not either the bill or the project comes to pass, hydropower from Quebec will continue to flood down on New England to help serve its electricity load. Let’s just hope that all that water won’t drown the burgeoning renewable energy industry that is starting to take hold.

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Jennifer Runyon has been studying and reporting about the world's transition to clean energy since 2007. As editor of the world's largest renewable energy publication, Renewable Energy World, she observed, interviewed experts about, and reported on major clean energy milestones including Germany's explosive growth of solar PV, the formation and development of the U.S. onshore wind industry, the U.K. offshore wind boom, China's solar manufacturing dominance, the rise of energy storage, the changing landscape for utilities and grid operators and much, much, more. Today, in addition to managing content on POWERGRID International, she also serves as the conference advisory committee chair for DISTRIBUTECH, a globally recognized conference for the transmission and distribution industry. You can reach her at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com

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