Hydro push

Proposed legislation would pave the way for hydroelectric imports from Canada

In a bid to replace the region’s retiring coal and nuclear power plants with cleaner energy, the Patrick administration and key lawmakers are mounting a major push behind legislation that would pave the way for the importation of large amounts of hydroelectricity from Canada.

The legislation calls for the state’s utilities to solicit proposals by the end of the year for 2,400 megawatts of energy from renewable sources (wind, solar) and/or hydroelectric power. That amount of power is enormous, roughly the equivalent of two Seabrook Power plants.

Stephen Clarke, the administration’s assistant secretary of energy at the executive office of energy affairs, said the clean energy is needed to offset the loss of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, the coal-fired Salem and Brayton Point plants, and several other plant retirements expected in the coming years. Clarke said a quarter of the region’s generating capacity is expected to be retired within roughly a decade. He said clean, replacement power is needed to keep the lights on and comply with the state’s emissions targets.

“I can’t overstate how important this is,” Clarke said. “It’s really historic in scope.”

State officials say the focus of the legislation is primarily hydroelectric power from Canada, but the solicitation could include onshore wind from northern Maine as well as offshore wind. Jim Gordon, the developer of Cape Wind, the proposed wind farm in Nantucket Sound, said he was only familiar with the broad outlines of the legislation. But he said he would be interested in exploring whether the solicitation could yield a buyer for the quarter of his project’s power output that has not been purchased.

At least four projects are in various stages of development to deliver hydropower from several Canadian provinces into New England, including one called Northern Pass pushed by Northeast Utilities and Hydro-Quebec. Northeast Utilities owns NStar, one of the state’s biggest utilities.

Some in the energy business are already grumbling that pitting relatively cheap hydroelectric projects from Canada against more expensive renewable projects will allow the hydro projects to inflate their prices. But Clarke said he believes there will be sufficient competition to keep prices down.

“We anticipate large-scale hydro won’t be the only resource selected,” he said.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Since the passage of the state’s Green Communities Act, utilities have been required to periodically solicit long-term power supply proposals from renewable energy developers. The proposed bill would expand the scope of that process and extend it to hydroelectricity, which Massachusetts does not consider a renewable form of energy.

The proposed legislation, filed by Rep. Mark Cusack of Braintree and Sen. Barry Finegold of Andover, would allow hydro to qualify for the solicitation but not for renewable energy subsidies available to wind and solar power. Under the bill, all projects accepted by the utilities would require the approval of state regulators.