Hydro power is good, but safeguards needed

We need to verify that imports actually reduce emissions

MASSACHUSETTS IS ON THE FRONT LINES of the climate crisis. Residents are already grappling with the effects of a changing climate on the coasts and in our communities. In response to this growing threat, Massachusetts law requires that the state reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050, and Massachusetts has taken action to reduce climate pollution to fulfill this commitment, including increasing the supply of energy from offshore wind and hydropower and reducing fossil fuels used to generate electricity.

Massachusetts is also seeking to diversify its low emitting energy resources by contracting for additional supplies of hydropower from Quebec. Acadia Center data indicate that if Massachusetts and the region continue their over-reliance on natural gas, it will be impossible to meet their long-term goals for emissions reductions. Studies conducted in Quebec conclude that Canadian hydropower from the existing system of dams is a low-carbon energy source. Acadia Center’s EnergyVision 2030 study shows that hydropower can play an important role in the Northeast’s shift away from fossil fuels, growing to be about 20 percent of the region’s energy supply by 2030 and allowing local clean energy sources to grow even faster. But hydro’s contribution is only of value if energy deliveries grow and occur in a way that results in verifiable carbon reductions.

Massachusetts regulators must ensure these requirements are fulfilled. They are currently reviewing a contract valued at roughly $1 billion between Hydro-Quebec and Massachusetts utilities. The New England Clean Energy Connect—linking the Hydro-Quebec system to the grid in Lewiston, Maine—would require a new 50-mile corridor through western Maine forest, creating impacts which the Maine Public Utilities Commission characterized as “significant.” In addition to siting concerns, the contract has highlighted at least two gaps in state law that must be addressed to ensure this and other future contracts will truly deliver power that reduces climate pollution.

First, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities must ensure that Hydro-Quebec will actually export more hydropower to Massachusetts than it does currently. Over the past several years, the region has purchased hydropower from Hydro-Quebec as needed, mostly without contracts in place. The law says that the 9.45 terawatt hours of power bought each year under this contract must be above and beyond levels previously delivered to New England by Hydro-Quebec. The proposed contract, disappointingly, sets minimum deliveries well below historical levels. This, in turn, could theoretically allow Hydro-Quebec to deliver less power while still fulfilling the contract, throwing into question whether the state will actually achieve the added emissions reductions expected and required.

Second, the contract does not sufficiently account for the possibility that Hydro-Quebec could choose to reduce the amount of power it sells elsewhere in order to provide more power to Massachusetts—keeping total hydropower generation, and therefore emissions, level across the region. Hydro-Quebec has assured regulators it has sufficient capacity to fulfill the contract and no intention to shift current deliveries away from other markets. While some studies indicate this is the likely outcome, what matters is how things turn out in practice. Acadia Center supports a mechanism to verify shifts do not occur over the 20-year contract. A comprehensive, independent tracking system or other form of transparency would allow the public to verify that the expected carbon reductions are indeed happening.

Meet the Author

Amy Boyd

Senior attorney, Acadia Center
Meet the Author

Deborah Donovan

Massachusetts director and senior policy advocate, Acadia Center
The New England Clean Energy Connect must clear significant hurdles before it can be deemed environmentally acceptable in Maine. In Massachusetts, regulators at the Department of Public Utilities have an opportunity to require straightforward commitments from Hydro-Quebec to ensure that the imported hydropower will contribute to fight against climate change as our legislators clearly intended and as we know is necessary for the future of our state and the globe.

Amy Boyd is a senior attorney and Deborah Donovan is the Massachusetts director and senior policy advocate at Acadia Center.