Friday, May 13, 2022

Quebec’s ‘green battery’ of hydropower

lake champlain

Just how big is Quebec’s “green battery” of hydropower? When you add up the surface area of utility giant Hydro-Quebec’s dozens of dammed reservoirs, they are bigger than the Adirondack Park’s six million acres. One impoundment is four times the size of Lake Champlain. Another is 55 times the size of Lake George.

The staggering scale of Canadian hydropower resources underscores the potential of the Champlain Hudson Power Express transmission line in helping New York reach its ambitious goal of emissions-free electricity by 2040. But it is also a powerful reminder of the harm done to Indigenous people whose lives and communities were upturned by the construction of dams across northern Canada.

Now, due to a multi-billion dollar contract with Hydro-Quebec approved by the state Public Service Commission last month, CHPE developers say they are ready to start construction of the transmission line this summer. Likely in 2024, barges will be seen on Lake Champlain for months at a time, gradually laying a cable at the bottom of the lake for 100 miles.

I dug into the history and future of the transmission line – and the scores of arguments for and against it – in our latest edition of the magazine. In one story, I focused on the overall project and the long-debated question of whether Article 14 protections extend underwater (answer: state officials don’t think so, citing a 1918 attorney general opinion). In a second story, I explored the scale of Canadian hydropower and the historical harm to Indigenous communities that rely on the waterways that produce so much power.

The two stories highlight the complicated tradeoffs at the center of New York’s planned transition away from fossil fuel – “green” and renewable doesn’t always mean low impact. As one energy expert told me, a less-than-ideal project may be better than no project.

Photo: A view of Lake Champlain’s Snake Den Harbor and beyond toward Vermont from Split Rock Wild Forest. Photo by Mike Lynch

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Zach’s weekly “Water Line” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Zachary Matson has been an environmental reporter for the Explorer since October 2021. He is focused on the many issues impacting water and the people, plants and wildlife that rely on it in the Adirondack Park. Zach worked at daily newspapers in Missouri, Arizona and New York for nearly a decade, most recently working as the education reporter for six years at the Daily Gazette in Schenectady.

28 Responses

  1. Steve B. says:

    Its interesting that the voters of the State of Maine recently rejected the construction of a supplemental above ground power line thru the state, that would have brought 1200 megawatts of power to Maine and primarily to Massachusetts. The underground generation system in the James Bay area, as well as the power lines across Quebec are largely complete or being built. They have no power to send unless Maine approves the 50 miles of new forest clearing and construction. The residents voted and said No Thanks.

    • Borras says:

      Steve B,

      Unfortunately power lines are the pipelines of electricity. They are often viewed as benign by the public, but they are far from it. So if the power is ultimately going to a different state, the new powerline loses much of its shine.

      This is a complication that is not really addressed in our rush to become less reliant on fossil fuels. Every NEW power generator needs transmission lines. Converting old sites and building new power sources close to old sites can save on MANY miles of new lines. And as anyone out west can tell you, it is also important to keep even old ROWs supplied with well-maintained lines that don’t cause wildfires.

  2. robert herendeen says:


    The most recent diversion was at the Meeting of the International Society for Ecological Modelling in Montreal, which was a bit of a sleeper, though Montreal was full of energy and life and contrasts. There was a continuing street fair downtown, Les Francofolies, with African drumming gratis every night: happy, civil citizens, all smoking and doing other stuff that we think is detrimental , and most of them looking healthy and in better shape than Americans…in some proportion due to the fact that they are physically active, have good genes, and live in a gallic culture.

    The Folies was sponsored by Labatt’s beer and Hydro Quebec, the latter the bosses and hit men for the James Bay electric project. Folks I talked to were not aware that HQ was connected to the James Bay activity. The spokesperson at the HQ tent claimed that they do not dam rivers: they use run-of-the-river power plants. But they had an exquisite map, the kind with lights that flash when you push buttons, and all lights worked, and on it were light strings jamming, thrusting, scratching north to huge lakes which I knew did not exist 20 years ago. I could even see the how the Caniapiscau River flows west to James Bay instead of north to Ungava. I pointed all of this out, and the spokesperson shifted gears, taking credit for delaying Phases 2 and 3, which they have decided not to build for the nonce. Then we got into the need for power, whether any part of the North has value other than as sacrifice for the south, etc.

    But I have learned not to argue with drunks or underlings, and anyway, a rock band was turning on the juice, so the words were lost in gestures, then the gestures were lost in strobe flashes. The power was cranking up, baby, and somewhere in the wastes where once thrashed the Eastmain and the LaGrande down to the Arctic Sea, some stainless steel valve got the message, an amplified guitar-pick flick, really, to jet a few more tons of eau claire into those Japanogerman chrome-moly turbine blades and faaawaaahhh shicka shick whoooommmm!, a wailing dB diatribe came down on Rue Bleury, and I was out digging it. The Cree, the Canadian Shield, the Inuit, the rapids that shook the earth but now sound like a dripping urinal, the high keening wind of the North called Keewadin, mon ami, were OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM BOUNDARY.

  3. LakeReader says:

    Power supply is part of the equation: the other part is usage. Cryptocurrency ‘mining’ now consumes as much electricity as the UK or Italy. Inefficient electricity generating stations across upstate NY are being re-started to provide cheap power for Bitcoin mining. These plants alone are sufficient to keep NYS from attaining the carbon resection targets under the 2019 NY Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act. As crypto use skyrockets, why won’t the cheap Canadian hydropower get used up by crypto miners – with conventional fuels no less necessary for the balance of our needs.

    • Boreas says:

      Indeed – a very important and often overlooked problem. Rate structure needs to take energy hogs into consideration and charge accordingly. Perhaps look at KwH/employee and usefulness to the community??

  4. louis curth says:

    The public needs to take their blinders off on the issue of power line siting. Those “pipelines of electricity”, that we all need to supply our insatiable electricity needs, are far from benign as we found out long ago.

    Back around 1980, a major power line upgrade to North Creek was announced to provide more power, primary to Gore Mtn. Ski Center. Long story short, the Upper Hudson Environmental Action Committee saw concerning environmental issues in the plans and therefore decided to become a “party of interest” before the PSC. The ensuing legal battle that followed became a textbook case for a citizen action group challenging corporate interests. Although the UHEAC won a narrow victory in this David & Goliath battle, its importance as a precedent has been all but forgotten.

    Perhaps it became an inconvenient truth that agencies like the APA and the DEC would prefer not to face in subsequent projects like the Lake Champlain transmission line…

    • Boreas says:

      Agree Louis! With all sorts of alternative energy start-ups, new and/or upgraded transmission lines will need to be part of that process. Line routing will certainly become an issue. Even upgrades to the power grid often entail routing additional lines. I know of two recent projects in my area alone (Keeseville/Peru).

      There must be a way of transmitting power with a smaller footprint. Can narrower ROWs be used? Can transmission lines themselves be made safer to allow narrower ROWs? Is there a way to run them in/along the ground like an actual pipeline – at least through sensitive areas?

      I don’t have the answers, but if we are intending to build alternative power facilities in new areas, this certainly needs to be part of the discussion before we pull out the wallet. Currently, it seems to be a given that the local environment will take a back seat to power demands. This should not be the case within the Blue Line. We need to make sure our local, state, and federal, representatives are cognizant of the uniqueness of the Adirondack Park.

      • Steve B. says:

        You cannot practically run high voltage A.C. power underground, too much line loss and thermal issues. They do run D.C. underground and underwater (as per the Lake Champlain and Lake George project), but I believe there are some engineering limitations on capacity. As well the requirement to convert to D.C. and back again to A.C is expensive. D.C. systems are useful when connecting 2 different systems as theres no need to sync the 60 hertz generators. As well you can run D.C underwater with little line loss, this is very common in Europe.

        I think the voters complaint in Maine was on one hand the need to widen some of the existing corridors as well as the need to cut a new 50 mile corridor, as well the voters are very unhappy with the current energy providers in Maine and just wanted to stick it to them, was my take.

  5. Harold says:

    “Green Battery” really! First, just where are they storing that electricity, in a battery? 2nd, do you think that everything they use to make that “Green” electricity comes from thin air, plastics, composites, metals etc; they all take other forms of energy to produce the items needs to produce your “green” energy. But let’s get past that concept and onto batteries, which do not produce energy, but only store that which is produced elsewhere. What about the materials that are required to construct those high efficiency batteries and the damage done to the planet from acquiring those raw materials and then disposing of them at the end of their life cycle? You are not sheep, don’t act like it!

    • Dana says:

      I assume that is why ‘green battery’ is in quotes. It would seem the power storage is the immense amount of water questionably impounded in Quebec – at least the way I understood the article.

    • AG says:

      You are correct… Mining the minerals for batteries is indeed destructive. Saving direct emissions is considered “green” – but it doesn’t mean that the earth isn’t being ruined in another form

  6. Wally Elton says:

    It is “green” only from the perspective of carbon emissions during the generation of the power. But harmful to local ecology, communities along the powerlines, and especially First Nations whose land is flooded. I’ve not seen an overall carbon balance sheet that considers the energy used in construction and transmission.

    • AG says:

      Correct. In the same way disposing of solar panels is toxic and mining for minerals for batteries is destructive too.

  7. Marc Wigle says:

    As an Anglophone Quebecer I really wish that more people would boycott this Province. Buy from Ontario instead… at least they’re proud to be Canadian. Please take your tourism dollars elsewhere.

  8. Everybody seems to like complaining about electricity generation and transmission, but I don’t see too many people rushing to do without it. Coal based powerplants are obviously a big problem from the mining to the pollution from burning coal. Gas powered plants are a bit better but still have pollution concerns. Solar is drawing complaints for taking up large expanses of open land and farmland. Some claim solar is equivalent to adding impervious surface with runoff and erosion. Windmills kill birds. Hydropower destroys rivers and kills fish. Nuclear creates waste that persists for thousands of years. Fusion looks to still be a long way off. And on and on.

    Increasing efficiency helps but bitcoin mining appears to be racing in the wrong direction.

    It’s a complex issue and I don’t see any simple solution. In ancient times and even today people burn wood for heat, cooling, and light.

    I’ll have to stop typing now. I’m getting out of breath pedaling this darned generator not to mention exhaling excess carbon dioxide.

  9. JohnL says:

    Hi Melissa: This comment is not for this thread. It’s for the ‘Racial and Environmental Justice’ post that was apparently closed suddenly to comments after a very thoughtful, insightful and very short lived comment on abortion that ADKresident (I think) made. I read it once, got side tracked to another website, and was coming back to re-read it and it, and all the previous comments on this thread were missing. Since I’ve never seen this (closing comments) before, I was wondering if it was cancelled because of his post. If so, I’m very disappointed, as, like I said, it was very thoughtful and insightful. I’m sorry I didn’t think to copy it for my records. Thanks for listening.

    • Hi John, sorry you were closed out of the discussion. I shut it down because it had gotten way off topic and the original post was attracting some unsavory comments as well, some of which were deleted immediately. So I made the decision to shut the whole thing down. You are right, I’ve never taken that step before and hopefully won’t again!

      • JohnL says:

        Melissa. Thanks for the explanation. I don’t agree with it, but appreciate your letting me, and probably the others who noticed it, know why you did it. My experience with this website is that the comments almost ALWAYS get ‘way off topic’ and quite often attract some unsavory comments. That’s all part of a lively open forum and what makes these discussions so informative and enlightening for all. But, it’s your website, so I’ll keep your thoughts in mind as I make future comments. Again, thanks for the explanation. JohnL

        • ADKresident says:

          Yes, JohnL, that was a comment I had written in reply to the other “off topic’ comments, which btw had not been closed…. until what I wrote from a Pro Life POV. Then all of a sudden, Poof. Disappeared!

          I do not want to be presumptuous, however, I find very coincidental that it was not deleted because it was ‘off topic’, and simply an excuse to justify its removal. I would like to believe otherwise, but there’s been an undeniable trend in our culture to attempt to silence anyone that does not tow the liberal line, and want to control the narrative being posted. Unfortunately, it does not stop with the ADK ALM. As editors, they certainly can do that and I respect their right to do so. However, I wouldn’t claim the ADK ALM to be a ‘community forum” for all because it is not. It’s a shame, really.

          • JohnL says:

            If you were being presumptuous ADKr, so was I. I thought that same thing. Like you, I can’t pretend to know what peoples’ real intentions are, but I hope it wasn’t deleted because of the content of your particular comment. I guess we’ll see as we move forward. Thanks ADKr. I look forward to seeing your comments here in the future.

            • ADKresident says:

              Thanks JohnL. 🙂 The good news is, many, many normally quiet voices are rising up and will no longer tolerate being silenced by those who will only publish/post one side’s POV, use the power of the delete key for those comments they disagree with, and manipulate thought by programmed algorithms. A sleeping giant has woken up and the momentum is growing. Enough already.

          • The entire thread was removed so you can put to rest the idea that it was your comment that did it.

            • ADKresident says:

              I realize that, Melissa Hart. I will take your word for it. Only you know your true intention.

  10. Zephyr says:

    Cue the NIMBYs again! No source of power is perfect. Nothing is completely green. Personally, I say give us all the hydro power we need to get rid of coal, gas, and other fossil-fuel using plants. I have hiked many powerline right-of-ways to get to places otherwise almost inaccessible. We will need more in our all-electric future, which is coming whether the NIMBYs like it or not.

    • Boreas says:

      Agree. NIMBY is also a variation of “Let other people reduce their energy usage – I am in the market for a house double the size of what I need!! LOOK AT ME!!”. While getting more efficient, it doesn’t mean new construction is low-impact WRT to energy. This includes final product and manufacturing costs associated with all materials, components, and systems within the house – and especially the siting of the structure. But the most energy efficient new construction involves human nature and building what you NEED, not what you WANT. Just designing a smaller house while designing-in a few modest solar panels (electric or thermal) can go a long way to reducing energy footprint. For instance, should oil or electric baseboard heat be outlawed in cold climates? Bringing the price and efficiency of heat-pump (air and in-ground) into the realm of the mainstream would likely provide many ongoing benefits for the future.

      IMO, we are too late to have much of an impact on slowing down the climate freight train, but we still need to live with the fact that there are currently no limits on world population and how long humankind will persist into the new world we are creating. With great power comes great responsibility. We have no choice but to think globally while acting locally.

      • Zephyr says:

        Agreed that the low-hanging fruit is energy conservation using existing technologies and just reduction in use. I suspect fuel prices will eventually do some of that for us. Things like insulation, heat pumps, etc. are already doable, and with the right financial incentives and help from the government could pay big dividends. I can’t recall where I read it, but apparently changing things like streelights to LEDs can result in significant savings on a municipal level. One of my pet peeves is the lack of accessibility to public buildings and spaces by foot or by bicycle. I’d like to see every school be walkable and bikable. I personally live in a small, walkable city, and it is both enjoyable to get around without a car and also practical. Every car trip not taken is an energy savings. Obviously, this doesn’t work for many off the beaten track places in the Adirondacks, but the bulk of the population lives in towns or villages.

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