Hydro-Quebec power is not what we want

Emission reductions, tribal claims, money outflow all concerns

OVER THE NEXT FEW MONTHS, the Baker Administration will be making billion-dollar decisions about the kind of energy that will be powering our homes, businesses, and municipalities for decades to come. It is critical we get it right.

Across the globe we are watching the devastating impacts of climate disruption. The specter of extreme storms, fires, heat waves, and the resulting immense suffering is no longer something to be feared at some far off time in the future—it has arrived.

There is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today than there has ever been while humans have walked the planet. And we send over 35 billion more tons into the atmosphere each year.

Massachusetts cannot stop climate change by itself, but it can set an example of what a state can do, and we know that other states will follow us. From health care to gay marriage to, just recently, becoming the first state to ban bump stocks on automatic weapons, Massachusetts is a state that others emulate.

The Energy Diversity Act, which passed nearly unanimously on Beacon Hill in 2016, requires the procurement of 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind and 1,200 megawatts of additional energy in the form of solar, wind, anaerobic digestion, or hydropower.

In April, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, in concert with the state’s investor-owned utilities, released a joint request for oroposals for bids for the 1,200 megawatts of energy.

Dozens of companies responded, offering various combinations of solar, wind, or Canadian hydropower. The projects are being judged on a variety of criteria, including whether they provide enhanced electricity reliability, are cost effective, bring economic and environmental benefits, foster employment and economic development, and demonstrate a benefit to low-income ratepayers.

Here are some considerations for Baker Administration officials as they make their decision.irst, there must be transparency in how projects are chosen. It is awkward, to say the least, that Eversource and National Grid partnered with the Department of Energy Resources in drafting the request for proposals and awarding the contracts, while also standing to profit from it as bidders. There are safeguards in place to minimize conflicts of interest, but competing companies are understandably concerned over their competitors being at the decision-making table. How the criteria are applied to each project and the justification for the final decision should be made public.

Second, in terms of environmental implications, we must ensure our energy choices encourage growth in renewable generation and lead to real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Large scale hydropower from Hydro-Quebec is problematic on this score. Based on their annual reports and 10-year strategic plan, all of Hydro-Quebec’s current and future planned export capacity can be handled by current transmission lines. This means any new transmission lines to different markets, such as New England, would give the provincial utility the option to schedule their exports of hydropower where and when prices are highest (i.e. “chasing” peak-demand prices), leaving everyone paying more, and leaving capacity gaps to be filled with existing dirty fuels such as methane gas.  So while our own power might be cleaner, on net there would be no true reduction in greenhouse gas emissions released, which defeats the purpose of this whole endeavor.

Third, we must make sure the power does not benefit us at the expense of more vulnerable populations. Again, Hydro-Quebec does not meet this bar. This past July, members of the Pessamit Innu tribe in Quebec traveled to New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Speaking with policymakers and the press, they described in vivid terms how Hydro-Quebec’s massive flooding has had a devastating impact on their ancestral lands and way of life. A five-turbine hydroelectric dam can cause a six-foot fluctuation in water levels multiple times per day. Downriver from Hydro-Quebec’s projects, salmon as well as many bankside animal and plant species, including the otter, mink, and beaver populations, have been decimated. Surging waters erode the banks, pulling trees and debris into the river, and suffocating salmon egg spawning grounds with layers of thick silt.

The Pessamit claim to have received no compensation from Hydro-Quebec for having been driven off their land over decades, and claim numerous violations of international treaties relating to respect of indigenous peoples and to conservation of salmon stocks. The Pessamit Innu issued a press release in early November, further outlining concerns over Hydro-Quebec’s practices.

Fourth, when considering economic benefit, projects should maximize keeping energy dollars here at home—i.e., in Massachusetts and New England. Buying power from Hydro-Quebec only continues to send billions of energy dollars out of our local economy.

Finally, any project chosen should minimize the need for new transmission lines. If new transmission is necessary, making use of existing rights of way and avoiding deforestation should be a priority.

Meet the Author

Emily Norton

Chapter Director, Massachusetts Sierra Club
The decisions made in the next few months about the energy we want to power our state will reverberate for decades. These billion-dollar projects cannot be easily undone. We no longer have the luxury of following the path of least resistance—or loudest lobbying—when making energy policy decisions. These decisions must be made transparently—with the impacts on climate, vulnerable communities, and the local economy given the weight they deserve. We have to get this right.

Emily Norton is Massachusetts chapter director of the Sierra Club and a Newton city councilor.