Mass. Finds Alternate Route to Canadian Hydropower

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

The Northern Pass power-line project may be on life support, but controversial Canadian hydropower might yet reach southern New England if Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker gets his way.

The New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee rejected the 192-mile Northern Pass project on Feb. 1. While Eversource Energy has until March 27 to salvage its $1.6 billion transmission plan, Massachusetts has announced negotiations with a Maine utility for a backup plan to deliver imported hydropower to the Bay State.

The New England Clean Energy Connect, developed by the Central Maine Power Co., proposes a 145-mile power-line network to transmit 1,200 megawatts of hydropower from the Canadian border to Lewiston, Maine, where it will connect to the New England power grid. The $950 million cost for the project would be spilt by ratepayers and Hydro-Québec, an energy company run by the Canadian government.

Baker is banking on Canadian hydropower to fulfill his goal of 1,200 megawatts of new renewable energy under contract by April 1. The terms of the deal, as set by state law, have been criticized for excessively benefiting the utility, which in this case is Eversource or Central Maine Power. The terms for a hydropower-transmission project allows the utility to collect an annual payment, as well as receive a fully funded, high-voltage transmission system.

New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu supports the Northern Pass proposal, but there was overwhelming opposition from local politicians, environmentalists and the public. In a unanimous vote, the state siting board ultimately rejected the proposal 7-0 because of concern that it would damage scenic areas, tourism and local businesses.

In Massachusetts, the bidding process has been accused of favoring the utilities, who make up a majority of the selection committee. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is reviewing the bidding process for any violations.

Less publicized is the threat hydropower inflicts on the environment and indigenous communities in Québec. Hydro dams require massive reservoirs that swamp dry land and low-lying wetlands while distressing fish and their habitat.

Indigenous groups such as the Pessamit Innu, Cree, and Inuit claim that hydropower causes permanent damage to their land, food supply and the salmon population, one of the primary sources of revenue in the Betsiamites River. The Pessamit Innu tribe says exporting additional Hydro-Queceb electricity would cause greater changes in the water level of the reservoirs and further damage the environment.

The New Hampshire energy siting board denied the Pessamit Innu a request to intervene in the Northern Pass application review. The Pessamit grievances date back to the 1950s, when the first dams were built on their tribal land without approval, by Hydro-Quebec, which runs 62 hydro projects in the region. The company maintains that it has worked with the indigenous groups to protect and restore the salmon population while paying the Pessamit $80 million over 20 years. Hydro-Quebec notes that the company has signed 30 agreements with indigenous groups, known as first nations, since 1975.

Hydro-Quebec chasticed the Pessamit for partnering with Sierra Club to advance its opposition to exporting hydropower. The power company also criticized the environmental group for arguing that hydropower doesn't reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Yet, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, large-scale hydropower contributes to global warming, as flooded land releases carbon dioxide and methane from decaying vegetation and erosion caused by runoff.

A 2016 study by Washington State University suggests that methane and CO2 emissions released as the water level fluctuates in hydropower reservoirs should be considered in the lifecycle emissions of an energy facility. A 2016 study published by PLOS One reaches a similar conclusion, but suggests that the emissions can be offset by generating biogas electricity and timely management of power generation.