Massachusetts has chosen Hydro-Québec and its New England partner, Eversource Energy, for a 20-year electricity import/export deal expected to bring the province up to $500 million per year in new revenue.
“All of the energy supplied to Massachusetts under the deal, up to 9.45 terawatt hours a year, will be generated by Hydro-Québec. That’s the equivalent of more than 17% of Massachusetts’ energy consumption in 2014,” and the biggest export deal the Quebec utility has ever signed, the Montreal Gazette reports.
“Hydro-Québec will spend $600 million to build transmission lines to the U.S. border, where they will connect with the Northern Pass, a transmission line through New Hampshire being developed by Eversource.”
The power export will require National Energy Board review. Northern Pass is still subject to approval by the state government in New Hampshire, where Gov. Chris Sununu supports it but local opposition has been strong.
“The situation has evolved a lot over the last two years,” Hydro CEO Éric Martel told media Friday. “I think there was much more opposition two years ago,” with Eversource committing to bury about 100 kilometres of transmission line in response to local concerns.
Martel wouldn’t reveal the Quebec utility’s projected profit from the project, but noted that exports accounted for 16% of its power generation and 28% of its profits in 2016. “It’s going to be in the same ballpark,” he said. “In 2016, it was $800 million of profit due to exports. So if you do the math, you know we’re going to increase the quantity. So definitely it’s going to improve our profitability.”
The Financial Post put the precise figure at $803 million out of $2.86 billion in total profit.
Martel said the predictability of hydro-generated utility helped push the bid to the top of a field of 46 contenders, including six bids from Hydro-Québec.
Quebec Energy and Natural Resources Minister Pierre Moreau said the deal would not bring down electricity rates within the province, but would help the government maintain lower rates for consumers. Last year, Hydro-Québec returned $4 billion to the provincial treasury.
“Whenever the profit goes up, it’s good news for the shareholder, which is the government of Quebec and basically all Quebecers,” Moreau said.
In anticipation of the state announcement, the Boston Globe carried a feature article chronicling a decades-long fight by the Pessamit Innu Band near Baie-Comeau, Quebec, to protect its traditional hunting and salmon fishing grounds, after Hydro-Québec built two dams totalling just over two gigawatts along the Betsiamites River in the late 1950s.
“Hydro-Québec has destroyed our territories,” said Pessamit Chief René Simon, adding that Innu ancestral lands are now the source of nearly one-third of the province’s hydropower. “I would advise the governor of Massachusetts not to buy the power from Hydro-Québec.”
The giant public utility responded that it had agreed to share profits with the community, spent years working with the community to restore salmon populations, and “categorically refutes” the community’s assertion that increased exports will adversely affect the river, said spokesperson Lynn St-Laurent. She added that the community’s accusations of cultural genocide are “offensive” and “couldn’t be further from reality.”
But the Pessamit maintain the constant raising and lowering of water levels behind the dam has had a significant environmental impact on the river, steadily eroding its clay banks and destroying salmon spawning grounds. Before the two dams were built, the Pessamit say they typically caught about 1,200 salmon per year. The average now stands at 170 per year since 1992, and last year the catch was down to 56.
“There is no salmon habitat in the world subject to such water-level variation,” said political consultant Louis Archambault, who’s representing the community in negotiations with the utility. The Globe points to overfishing and warming waters due to climate change as factors that are also affecting the salmon; the community felt abandoned and blamed after the salmon restoration program came to an end.
“It is immoral and disdainful to blame people living under the poverty line for the precarious salmon situation on the Betsiamites,” Archambault told the Globe. “The members of the community are not the ones who built and operate peak demand power stations on the Betsiamites.”
But on the receiving end of the proposed new transmission lines, Vox.com climate hawk David Roberts is taking issue with Sierra Club Massachusetts for declaring climate change an “existential threat”, still supporting the closure of the state’s 690-MW, operationally-challenged Pilgrim nuclear station, and then opposing Quebec hydro development and the Northern Pass transmission line.
“Not only will we be contributing to ecological destruction on a massive scale,” the state Club writes of the Northern Pass plan, “we will be furthering the exploitation of the Indigenous people of Canada.”
Citing cost figures from MIT energy analyst Jesse Jenkins, Roberts contends that Massachusetts could follow Sierra’s advice and get all the replacement power from energy efficiency and renewables—but it would be a lot more expensive.
“Closing off both possibilities [Pilgrim and Northern Pass] raises the cost of decarbonization substantially,” Roberts writes. And “even if New England citizens were willing to pay that much more for energy, even if procurement and construction went perfectly and the region were covered in solar panels, that energy would be replacing the energy lost from Pilgrim (and rejected from Quebec) rather than adding to it. There would be less progress toward decarbonization in Massachusetts than otherwise possible.”
Ultimately, closing Pilgrim and rejecting the import from Quebec “would almost certainly result in a net increase in New England carbon emissions,” Roberts concludes. “Yes, it will be possible someday to run an energy grid almost entirely on wind and solar, using demand-shifting and energy storage for the role natural gas (the dominant energy source in the state) plays today. But Massachusetts needs energy soon, and of the options available, natural gas is the cheapest and most available, so that is, in practice, what’s likely to fill the gap” without another short-term power source.