Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is looking to promote hydropower exports to the United States, as one response to President Joe Biden’s commitment to decarbonize his country’s sprawling electricity grid by 2035. But analysts say Canada’s network of hydro dams might be useful as a place to store renewable power, rather than generating it.
Trudeau “told Reuters last week the United States is interested in boosting [Canada-to-U.S.] hydro imports,” the news agency reports. Separately, Environment and Climate Minister Jonathan Wilkinson “said combining Canada’s clean energy with U.S. wind, solar, and geothermal power was a priority for early talks between the two countries.”
The U.S. is “leaving no sources of renewable energy off the table,” a Biden administration spokesperson added.
“Around 60% of the four trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity consumed in the United States in 2019 came from fossil fuels,” Reuters writes, citing government data. “Biden’s push to convert that to clean energy gives Canada, the world’s third-largest producer of hydropower, a window to sell more hydro exports to its southern neighbour.”
And “with Canadian crude exports taking a hit from Biden’s decision to scrap the Keystone XL oil pipeline, Ottawa is increasingly focused on sales of clean energy.”
The Canada Energy Regulator has Canadian hydropower exports to the U.S. dropping to a six-year low of 47 billion kilowatt-hours, worth C$1.9 billion/US$1.5 billion, Reuters says. But Steve Clemmer, director of energy research and analysis at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the news agency the U.S. could keep electricity costs under control by sharing resources via an interconnected grid.
“Having the hydro from Canada gives some more flexibility to control costs,” he said.
Hydro-Québec is already in negotiations with New England and New York State to get two new transmission lines in place, Reuters adds. “We share Prime Minister Trudeau’s optimism and we are enthused by President Biden’s commitment,” said spokesperson Lynn St-Laurent. “We believe HQ can play a major role in our neighbours’ decarbonization efforts, at the lowest cost possible to ratepayers.”
But while there’s a growing sense that Quebec has tapped out its affordable sources of hydropower, with the mammoth utility now turning to wind farms for new capacity, Reuters says Canadian hydro dams could become even more valuable to U.S. utilities as pumped storage capacity, to catch solar- and wind-generated electricity when supplies are high but demand is low. For some time, there’s been interest in using the Keeyask hydro project in Manitoba in exactly that way, in conjunction with a wind farm in Minnesota.
“There’s this version of Canadian hydro not only being firm (electricity generating capacity), but being something like a battery,” said Justin Gundlach, senior attorney at the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University Law School. “That’s the big picture informing the vision of some policy-makers.”
CBC business columnist Don Pittis made exactly that point earlier this week, after Quebec Premier François Legault gave his blessing to the C$600-million, 200-megawatt Apuiat wind farm near Port-Cartier.
“Just as Norway has been described as Europe’s battery, Quebec could play a similar lucrative role in a northeastern North America as it becomes increasingly dependent on cheap, intermittent, green power sources,” Pittis writes.
“Quebec is particularly well positioned…to store it and export it,” said Pierre-Olivier Pineau, chair in energy sector management at Montreal’s Hautes Études Commerciales (HEC). “Hydro-Québec is a battery in itself with its dams.”