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

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.




14 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:

    MEETING THE SYSTEM BOUNDARY,1997

    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. https://ccaf.io/cbeci/index 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.

  6. Wally Elton 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.

  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.

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