The push for renewable energy has local officials pursuing solar power in Edgartown, wind in Aquinnah, even tidal power in the Muskeget Channel. Why not hydropower from Canada as well?
That’s the question Cong. William Delahunt has asked over the past few months as he has worked on behalf of the Cape and Islands to secure a partnership with the Canadian government to bring hydroelectricity from the far north to the 10th district.
In August Mr. Delahunt met with Quebec Premier Jean Charest to discuss the prospect of such a partnership.
“Quebec had coincidentally just announced a plan with Vermont and [Mr. Delahunt] asked the premier about the prospects of a similar deal with the Cape and Islands,” Mr. Delahunt’s chief of staff Mark Forest told the Gazette on Tuesday. Mr. Delahunt expects to meet with Canadian officials again in the coming weeks.
In March, Vermont penned a 26-year contract with Hydro-Quebec to buy a third of its electricity from the state-owned utility starting in 2012. While Vermont stands to pay six cents per kilowatt hour, Mr. Forest expects that number would be closer to nine or ten cents for the Cape and the Islands due to added transmission costs – still far below the more than 20 cents per kilowatt hour expected within the first few years of Cape Wind’s operation. Mr. Forest said a local power purchase agreement with Canada would be made possible through the Cape Light Compact and the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative, which can purchase electricity at a wholesale and retail rate.
“We obviously need clean energy and we need to expand our portfolio,” he said, noting that many businesses in the commonwealth, particularly manufacturing companies, are highly sensitive to fluctuating electricity rates. “We should be aggressively pursuing our most affordable options,” Mr. Forest said.
A law passed in 2008 requires that Massachusetts generate 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Mr. Delahunt is hopeful that electrons generated in subarctic rivers would qualify, as they do in Vermont after former Gov. Jim Douglas signed a bill controversially designating Canadian hydropower as “renewable.” Some Vermonters argued that the move would discourage local renewable energy projects.
On the Vineyard, one such green pioneer, the upstart energy cooperative Vineyard Power, has been exploring for over a year the possibility of building a number of turbines offshore to satisfy Island demand. But board chairman Paul Pimentel said he would welcome a local purchase agreement with the northern neighbor even if it discouraged local turbine construction.
“What we’re into here is reliable, sustainable electricity,” he told the Gazette on Thursday. “If it comes from wind turbines off of the Island or hydropower in Canada it doesn’t matter to us.
“For our economic analysis, we’re assuming that fossil-based fuel will cost 11 cents per kilowatt hour in 2012. If we supplant energy from the grid for hydropower and we’re talking about eight or nine cents per kilowatt hour it gets to be very competitive, and you’re talking about almost no risk,” he said.
Mr. Pimentel said he has even spoken with Mr. Delahunt to suggest extending the Google-financed offshore network of transmission lines proposed to span from Virginia to New York city, all the way to Quebec to help the region plug in.
Still, Mr. Forest said he has heard some objections to designating hydropower as renewable, and he predicts that the issue may come to a head in the state legislature in the spring.
The move to Canadian power has been prompted in part by the ongoing community opposition and regulatory morass associated with in-state renewable energy projects. Particularly vexing has been the protracted struggle over scenic value as it relates to wind turbine development. Just as the Vineyard and Cape Cod have struggled over the appropriate visual scale of wind farms, so have the Berkshires in western Massachusetts as well as northward-looking Vermont.
“The Green Mountains are a beautiful part of their heritage and there’s a reluctance to see windmills there,” said Mr. Forest.
If windmills on Nantucket Sound seem obtrusive, though, the scale of Canadian hydropower is almost unimaginable. One of Hydro-Quebec’s damming complexes, the James Bay Project, under construction since the 1970s, has flooded an area of pristine wilderness the size of Belgium. In the 1990s vociferous objection by the aboriginal Cree population, who had used the surrounding rivers for fishing and trapping for thousands of years, led then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to cancel a $15 billion contract with Hydro-Quebec. A subsequent $70 million settlement between the government of Quebec and the Cree, along with the urgency of climate change mitigation have combined to change the mood of protest; additional hydroelectric projects to feed American energy consumption are underway. Ironically, an ongoing project to divert the Rupert River at the southeastern end of Hudson Bay has some in the native Canadian community calling for the construction of wind turbines rather than the continued diversion and damming of rivers.
Still, hydropower is vastly cleaner than fossil fuel (although there is still some associated greenhouse gas emission, both during construction and shortly afterwards from the decomposition of submerged vegetation) and Mr. Forest claims that the Canadian government has been more tactful in its approach with the native population.
“In Massachusetts people have been quick to dismiss the concerns of Native Americans about offshore wind,” he said, “but in Canada the concerns of the indigenous population have been a huge priority.”
Mr. Delahunt views Canada’s growing collaboration with the United States on energy issues not only as a tool to meet its renewable energy goals but also as a national security imperative. In recent years Canada has become a major figure in oil exports to the United States and its recently discovered vast reserve of shale natural gas has energy companies salivating and environmentalists shuddering. Mr. Delahunt was previously instrumental in the effort to import low-cost home heating oil from Venezuela, and the possibility of Canadian energy crossing the border does not end with hydropower.
“The resources are there and there are new technologies to exploit them, but there is debate about how to do it in an environmental way,” Mr. Forest said.
Regardless, he said, “the energy picture for New England is changing dramatically.”