New York and New England Want Extra Clear Power. Is Hydropower From Canada the Finest Technique to Get it?
As the sole residents of unorganized territory T5 R7 deep within Maine’s North Woods, Duane Hanson and his wife, Sally Kwan, have watched the land around them—known for its natural beauty, diverse wildlife and recreational fishing—transformed by decades of development.
But what troubles them most is what could happen in the next few months. State and corporate officials are pushing for construction of a 53-mile-long power line corridor cutting right through the woods and abutting the wild lands surrounding Hanson’s property.
If its proponents succeed, Hanson fears the corridor may represent the beginning of the end of his ability to live “off the land” away from the noise of technology-obsessed modern society. Soon, that noise may be in his backyard.
“I moved here to be in the pristine wilderness,” said Hanson.
With his life in what he considers the last “wild” place left on the East Coast on the line, the stakes have never felt higher to Hanson—and many across New England, as well.
The corridor is part of the New England Clean Energy Connect, one of two major and highly controversial transmission line projects meant to deliver Canadian hydropower from the government-owned utility HydroQuébec to New England electricity consumers.
As New England states rush to green their electric grids and combat the accelerating climate crisis, the simultaneous push from Canada to expand the market for hydroelectric power from its vast water resources has offered these states a critical lifeline at just the right moment.
The other big hydropower transmission line project will deliver 1,000 megawatts of power, or enough to serve approximately one million residential customers, to the New York City metropolitan area, which includes the city, Long Island, and parts of the Hudson Valley, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
The 333-mile-long Champlain Hudson Power Express project will consist of two high voltage direct current cables running underground and underwater from Canada, beneath Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, to Astoria, Queens.
There, the Champlain Hudson project will interconnect to a sector of the New York electricity grid where city and corporate officials say the hydropower supplied can help reduce the fossil fuels that currently comprise significantly more of the base load than in other parts of the state. Though New York has yet to finalize a contract with HydroQuébec over its hydropower purchase, developers plan to start construction on the $2.2 billion project in 2021 and say it will be operational in 2025.
The New England project consists of 145 miles of new HVDC transmission line that will run largely above ground from the Canadian border, through Maine to Massachusetts. The $1 billion project, funded by Massachusetts electricity consumers, is expected to deliver 1,200 megawatts of clean energy to the New England energy grid, becoming the region’s largest clean energy source.
Central Maine Power, which will construct the Maine transmission corridor, says the project will decrease wholesale electric rates and create thousands of jobs. Company officials expect to receive all necessary permits and begin construction by the year’s end, with the project completed and in service by 2020.
With only months until developers start making both projects on-the-ground realities, they have seized public attention within, and beyond, their regions.
Hanson is one among many concerned New England and New York residents who’ve joined the ranks of environmental activists in a contentious battle with public and corporate officials over the place of Canadian hydropower in their states’ clean energy futures.
Officials and transmission line proponents say importing Canadian hydropower offers an immediate and feasible way to help decarbonize electricity portfolios in New York and New England, supporting their broader efforts to combat climate change.
But some environmental activists say hydropower has a significant carbon footprint of its own. They fear the projects will make states look “greener” at the expense of the local environment, Indigenous communities, and ultimately, the climate.
“We’re talking about the most environmentally and economically just pathway” to decarbonization, said Annel Hernandez, associate director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance. “Canadian hydro is not going to provide that.”
To that end, environmental groups opposing Canadian hydropower say New York and New England should seize the moment to expedite local development of wind and solar power.
Paul Gallay, president of the nonprofit environmental organization Riverkeeper—which withdrew its initial support for the Champlain Hudson Power Express last November— believes New York has the capacity to develop enough in-state renewable energy sources to meet its clean energy goals, without the new transmission line.
Yet New York City’s analysis shows clearly that Canadian hydropower is critical for its clean energy strategy, said Dan Zarrilli, director of OneNYC and New York City’s chief climate policy adviser.
“We need every bit of clean energy we can get our hands on,” he said, to meet the city’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 and help achieve the state’s clean energy mandates.
Removing Canadian hydropower from the equation, said Zarilli, would commit the city to the “unacceptable outcome” of burning more gas. The city’s marginalized communities would likely suffer most from the resulting air pollution and associated health impacts.
While the two camps debate Canadian hydropower’s carbon footprint and what climate justice requires, this much is clear: When it comes to pursuing a zero-carbon future, there are no easy answers.
Hydropower’s Carbon Footprint
Many people take for granted that because hydropower production doesn’t involve burning fossil fuels, it’s a carbon-neutral endeavor. But that’s not always the case, depending on where hydropower is sourced.
Large-scale hydropower projects often involve the creation of hydroelectric dams and reservoirs. The release and flow of water from the reservoir through the dam provides the energy necessary to generate hydropower, which long-distance power lines, or transmission lines, carry to its intended destination—in this case, New England and New York.
The initial process of flooding land to create a hydroelectric reservoir can have a sizable carbon footprint, especially in heavily vegetated areas. It causes the vegetation and soil underwater to decompose, releasing carbon dioxide and methane—a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide.
Hydropower accounts for 60 percent of Canada’s electricity generation, with the nation second only to China in the percentage of the world’s total hydroelectricity it generates. By contrast, hydropower only accounts for seven percent of U.S. utility-scale electricity generation, making it a foreign concept to many Americans.
As New England works to introduce substantial amounts of Canadian hydropower to its electricity grid, hydropower proponents are promoting it as a prime source for clean electricity.
Last fall, Central Maine Power formed its own political action committee, Clean Energy Matters, to advance the New England hydropower project. Together with HydroQuébec, the Maine utility has spent nearly $17 million campaigning for the project this year.
Bradford Hager, an earth sciences professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said with this kind of lobbying, it’s no surprise that so many people have what he sees as a misconception that hydropower is necessarily a form of “clean” energy.
Hager testified last year to the Army Corps of Engineers that six of HydroQuébec’s reservoirs are among the top 25 percent of greenhouse gas emitters among hydro plants worldwide, with emissions ranging from about that of a modern natural gas power plant to over twice that of coal power plants.
Today, over 75 years since the company’s establishment by the Québec government, HydroQuébec maintains 62 hydroelectric generating stations, 27 large reservoirs and 668 dams. It presents its hydropower as “among the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of all electricity generation options.”
Gary Sutherland, a spokesperson for HydroQuébec, dismissed Hager’s analysis and said he had unfairly judged the company’s interconnected hydropower system by its “worst-performing reservoirs.”
A study requested by HydroQuébec put the average greenhouse gas emissions rate of the company’s hydropower, based on a life cycle assessment of its entire hydroelectric generating fleet, at about one-quarter of the rate for photovoltaic solar.
Still, the projects’ opponents remain wary of hydropower’s carbon footprint.
Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter has raised concerns around the use of carbon-intense fossil fuels by HydroQuébec to substitute for hydropower if the Canadian company deems it necessary to meet New England and New Yorkers’ electricity demand. The group also warned that reliance on Canadian hydropower “would undercut financial incentives for developing local, distributed energy” as an alternative to fossil fuels.
Responding to concerns around fossil fuel substitution, Sutherland said HydroQuébec’s contractual agreements with Massachusetts committed the utility to supplying 100 percent clean power.
While the Champlain Hudson project remains under negotiation, Zarrilli made clear that anything other than clean electricity was “not on the table” for New York.
Some proponents of Canadian hydropower say it would complement local renewable energy development.
Patrick McClellan, policy director of the New York League of Conservation Voters, which supports the Champlain Hudson project, found it unlikely that Canadian hydropower would displace renewables from the energy market, at least in New York, which needs a vast amount of clean energy to meet its ambitious climate goals.
Rather, McClellan suggested, Canadian hydropower could provide an important “battery to back up intermittent renewables” like solar and wind.
Threatening the Endangered Atlantic Sturgeon
Emissions aren’t the only “dirty” consequences of Canadian hydropower. While Mainers hope to protect their state’s serene forests from further development, New Yorkers hope to preserve the health of one their most historic waterways—the Hudson River.
Environmentalists fear laying transmission lines in the Hudson’s riverbed could disturb decades-old contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
That contamination would have consequences for humans as well as aquatic life, said John Lipscomb, Riverkeeper’s vice president of advocacy.
Despite New York State’s Department of Health’s strict guidelines regarding the capture and consumption of fish from the Hudson, Lipscomb said he regularly sees “people fishing for consumption all the time and everywhere.”
He also expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of the river’s bottom-dwelling and bottom-feeding creatures, including the Atlantic sturgeon, an endangered species.
In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designated “critical habitat” for the Atlantic sturgeon in the Hudson River. The designation came three years after the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a final biological assessment and a concurrence letter for the project to the Department of Energy, concluding that the Champlain Hudson hydropower project “is not likely to affect any ESA-listed species under our jurisdiction during construction or over the lifetime of its operation.”
The National Environmental Policy Act requires that relevant federal agencies reinitiate formal consultation when new critical habitat is designated that the project may affect.
No legal action to reinitiate consultation in light of the Atlantic sturgeon’s recent critical habitat designation has been brought to date. But that could soon change as New York City officials push for a project contract by the year’s end.
If such action is brought, it may not be by Riverkeeper, a nonprofit originally founded by a group of concerned fishermen in 1966 that uses enforcement and litigation, among other methods, to protect and restore the Hudson River. Now opposing the Champlain Hudson Power Express, Riverkeeper initially supported the project in 2012 and agreed not to take any federal action to stop it.
Indigenious Communities in Canada Oppose the Projects
Further north, the human and environmental costs of these two projects come as no surprise to many Indigenous people, who feel HydroQuébec’s extensive hydropower system was built on their communities’ backs.
Today, Canada’s Indigenous communities experience higher rates of poverty and unemployment than its overall population, which Indigenous leaders attribute to the historical displacement of, and disinvestment in, their communities, which have often felt to them like “sacrifice zones” for the state’s hydropower projects.
Now, some Canadian Indigenous communities—including the Pessamit Innu, Wemotaci Atikamekw and Pikogan Anishinabek First Nations—hope U.S. allies can stall these projects across the border while they demand fair treatment and compensation from the Québec and Canadian governments at home.
Those First Nations communities do not live in the vicinity of the transmission line projects that will connect HydroQuébec’s hydropower grid to New England and New York, but they oppose them nonetheless for what they see as the continuation of a legacy of injustice.
Last August, members of these three First Nations testified through their spokespersons to Québec’s environmental review board that 36 percent of the total hydroelectric power installed by HydroQuébec, or about 13,200 megawatts, comes from traditional Indigenous territories still operated in violation of Canadian law and Supreme Court jurisprudence, as well as the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
That power may well end up supplying Massachusetts electricity consumers as part of the New England project.
“The Québec province and HydroQuébec are enriching themselves at our expense,” said Adam Jourdain, economic development director of the Wemotaci.
As a state-owned corporation, HydroQuébec’s profits support “social, educational and health programs in Québec that benefit all Québecers, including Indigenous peoples,” and its work to decarbonize energy markets and fight climate change benefits “all of us,” said Sutherland.
Sutherland said HydroQuébec received the appropriate authorizations at the time of construction for all of its facilities, including those located on lands now disputed by Indigenous groups. He also highlighted the over 40 agreements HydroQuébec has signed with five First Nations over the past four decades to “develop sustainable, mutually beneficial partnerships,” and said the company maintains “ongoing dialogue” with Indigenous communities to strengthen relations.
Across the border, some U.S. environmental activists see New England’s hydropower imports as making it complicit in the unjust treatment of Canadian Indigenous peoples, which activists say the U.S. should account for in its own regulatory proceedings.
“But for the U.S. government” the Champlain Hudson project “wouldn’t happen,” said Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. He said U.S. federal agencies must therefore consider “the full scope of impacts” of the project, including to Canadian Indigenous communities and wildlife, and the global climate—in contrast to the Department of Energy’s determination in 2014.
A Threat to Renewable Energy in the U.S.?
Beyond the opposition of Indigenous communities in Canada, Hernandez of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and other activists in the city worry that a local transition to renewable energy could suffer if Canadian hydropower becomes an increasing fixture in New England and New York’s energy mix, rather than a stopgap solution.
If that happens, it could seriously interfere with many city environmental groups’ vision of a “just transition” to a clean energy economy, which centers around home-grown wind and solar projects that generate green jobs, and economic and climate benefits, for the city’s marginalized communities.
Hernandez acknowledged that realizing that vision would require a vast upfront investment in projects, such as transforming the prison of Rikers Island into a renewable energy hub, that could become more cost-effective over time but couldn’t compete with the current price of Canadian hydropower.
The Canadian hydropower industry’s vested interest in exporting clean electricity to U.S. consumers may only grow the incentive for New York and New England to rely on Canadian hydropower, especially if it remains relatively cheap and readily available in the coming decades.
Though HydroQuébec has said the New England and New York projects don’t require any new hydrodam development, they may still lead to such development indirectly by increasing overall demand for Canadian hydropower.
HydroQuébec has also bucked calls from environmental activists for it to commit to a moratorium on new dam development. And as New England states’ need for climate action generates new economic opportunities for the company, it’s hard to imagine why HydroQuebec would do otherwise.
WaterPower Canada, the national not-for-profit trade association formerly known as the Canadian Hydroelectric Association, says on its website that Canada has the potential to more than double its installed capacity for hydropower generation. And it has made clear it intends to develop that potential, with HydroQuébec being no exception, said Meg Sheehan, a coordinator with the North American Megadam Resistance Alliance.
HydroQuébec’s strategic plan for 2020 to 2024 says that it aims to “increase our exports to support the decarbonization of northeastern North America.”
“They have to keep building dams and they have to keep exporting,” said Sheehan. She invoked the words of company’s own former CEO Eric Martel: “Without exports, our profits are in trouble.”
“Save the Maine Woods”
Regardless of who triumphs in the battle over the New York and New England projects, the broader debate over Canadian hydropower and a just transition in New England will likely continue.
As plans for the two hydropower transmission line projects unfold in the coming months, environmental and Canadian Indigenous organizers are hosting online press conferences and webinars to educate and mobilize Americans around their concerns, and pressuring their elected officials to reject hydropower projects.
Back in Maine, opponents hope reviving an old tactic will bring new success. Last August, the Maine Supreme Court ruled against putting a referendum seeking to block the Central Maine Power corridor on the November 2020 ballot on grounds that it was unconstitutional, having “exceed[ed] the scope of the people’s legislative powers.”
Now, activists with the citizens group Say No to NECEC are supporting a second referendum to put on the ballot for November 2021. Unlike the previous one, this referendum would request that Maine legislators adopt a policy of taking a two-thirds vote to approve the use of public lands for any future transmission line projects, as well as for any such projects passed in the last six years, which includes NECEC.
For his part, Hanson, seeking solitude in Maine’s North Woods, plans to continue speaking out against the project and the assault on the natural world he believes it represents.
Though his reasons for opposing it are manifold, Hasons’s message for his fellow Americans is simple. “Save the Maine woods, that’s my call,” he said, urging people to see the area for themselves. “All of the people that come here will agree.”