Push Back to Chafee's Canadian Hydropower Plan

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Two issues stood out when the Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI) delivered its annual legislative priorities April 30 at the Statehouse — hydropower and oversight of the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

Overall, ECRI, which represents most of Rhode Island’s environmental groups and advocates, is focusing on eight “priority” environmental bills as the General Assembly nears the end of the 2013 session.

“We act as a voice for sound environmental policy and law,” ECRI president Tricia Jedele said.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee made a strong push for the Energy Reform Act of 2013 and his desire to add a large segment of hydroelectric power from Canada to Rhode Island’s energy mix. A multi-state purchasing agreement of hydropower will deliver plentiful and inexpensive renewable energy, he said.

“We have a chance to make this region the green-energy capital of America," Chafee said.

ECRI and other environmental groups worry that an influx of Canadian hydropower will slow efforts to expand wind, solar and other renewable energy projects in Rhode Island. Delivering a mass of electricity from Canada also requires a costly expansion of the transmission system, they said.

New power lines, such as the proposed Northern Pass project, could threaten open space across New England. The flooding caused by the construction of new dams in Canada also harms the environment and releases greenhouse gases, opponents said.

ECRI wants all references to Canadian hydropower dropped from the Energy Reform Act.

Chafee said Rhode Island and other states don’t have the patience for other renewable energy projects to produce cheap electricity. “Governors are getting a little exasperated with the price of wind and solar,” he said.

He also insisted that there wouldn't be a need for new transmission lines and that the hydro energy would be excluded from the state distributed generation program, which sets aside electric generation for local renewable energy projects.

Flooding caused by new dams wouldn't significantly alter the environment, he said. “If they’re going to build dams, this is a good place,” Chafee said of the unpopulated northern region of Canada where new dams are being proposed.

Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, sponsored the Energy Reform Act. Hydro energy, he said, is worth considering because it could even be cheaper than natural gas. “I put the bill in to have control over the process," he said.

The General Assembly is turning its attention to a realignment of state government to promote economic development. A package of House bills would put the DEM under the oversight of a new Executive Office of Commerce. The concept was put forward by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council last fall to improve the state's economy. Opponents say it could weaken environmental protections.

“The economy is inextricably linked to the health of our environment,” Jadele said.