By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Fossil-fuel companies and environmental groups remain united in their opposition to Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s plan to buy Canadian hydroelectric power for Rhode Island. Chafee’s Energy Reform Act of 2013 compels the state to buy 150 megawatts of electricity annually for 15 years from large-scale hydropower facilities, presumably from the Canadian hydropower industry.
Chafee has been pushing hyrdo power from Canada as an abundant and inexpensive renewable energy since he toured power plants in Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador in 2011. According to the Canadian Hydropower Association, 60 percent of Canada’s electricity comes from hydropower. Industry groups say capacity could more than double. Many regions north of the border are aggressively building dams and courting states in the Northeast to buy this power to help meet long-term renewable energy benchmarks.
Chafee wants to begin procuring the power just as Massachusetts and Connecticut are doing and perhaps achieve additional cost savings through collaborative purchases.
During a May 22 Senate hearing, Richard Licht, director of the Department of Administration, testified on behalf of the governor. “We need to be at the table when this discussion is going on or we’ll be left behind," he said.
But Licht was the lone supporter.
“We’re all opposed to this bill,” said Jerry Elmer, staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation. Despite promises from Chafee, Elmer said, hydro electricity isn't cheap. Vermont recently signed a contract for Canadian hydropower that was 32 percent above the market rate, he noted.
Importing hydro from existing power sources to meet Rhode Island’s green energy goals, Elmer said, also goes against several renewable energy programs, which aim to foster local construction of solar, wind and other renewable projects.
National Grid, he said, can buy Canadian hydro electricity at any time, without Chafee’s mandate. But the state's biggest power supplier hasn't bought in, Elmer said, because of the high price for hydro and the need for new transmission lines to deliver it to Rhode Island.
Sandi Hennequin of the New England Power Generators Association, the trade association for most fossil-fuel power generators in New England, said bringing Canadian hydro to Rhode island will require the construction of the Northern Pass, a controversial power line project that cuts through the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. This project has sparked significant public opposition, as well as objections from the New Hampshire Legislature for the need to use eminent domain. The power transmission project is expected to take years to resolve, Hennequin said.
At the recent hearing, Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield, said the action by the New Hampshire Legislature effectively kills any chance to bring Canadian hydro energy to Rhode Island. “Without the power of eminent domain ... how are you going to complete the project? You can’t,” Arhcambault said.
In early May, Chafee said Canadian hydroelectric power would not travel on existing transmission lines and thus not connect through the Northern Pass. His office admitted Wednesday that Chafee misspoke and that it is unclear if new utility lines would be necessary to deliver the electricity.
National Grid called the governor’s proposal a mandate, saying it weakens the energy supplier’s ability to negotiate for electricity and keep prices lower for customers. “At the end of the day people aren’t going to complain to anybody but us because we are sending out the bill,” said Michael Ryan, vice president of government affairs for National Grid.
Other opponents speaking at the hearing included People’s Power & Light, the New England Power Generators Association, Excelon, the Environment Council of Rhode Island, Real Goods Solar, Northeast Solar & Wind, the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Clean Economy Development, New England Clean Energy Council and Handy Law.
There also was broad support for Sen. Susan Sosnowski’s, D-South Kingstown, bill (H938) to extend the pilot program that has helped launch large wind- and solar-energy projects in the state. National Grid was one exception. Ryan said the distributed generation (DG) contracts program, which allows fixed pricing for new renewable projects, should pause for a year after the program ends Dec. 31, 2014. Expanding the program would cost ratepayers some $285 million, he said.
Elmer and others noted that the DG program has been a tremendous success. New projects have been launched while the cost to ratepayers for wind and solar has dropped. California, Iowa and Oregon are copying it, he said.
Ryan's cost estimates don't include the economic benefits of a growing renewable energy sector. Many local developers said Rhode Island is well behind Massachusetts and Connecticut in the renewable energy business.
Every megawatt of new renewable energy creates 400 new jobs, said Julian Dash of Clean Economy Development. “The day this bill passes is the day new jobs get created,” he said.
Both bills were held for further study.