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My Turn: Three ugly numbers behind Canadian hydropower push

At the recent New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers conference in Bretton Woods, there was much talk of new transmission lines for additional imports of Canadian hydropower into New England. Indeed, financing these lines is the centerpiece of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s pending energy bill and the supposedly “clean” half of the New England governors’ massive gas pipeline and hydropower plan.

Earlier this year, after the governors’ plan emerged, my organization, Conservation Law Foundation, began asking a number of questions about increasing hydropower imports through new transmission projects: What will it cost? Is it clean? Is it reliable? We ask these questions knowing that hydropower is part of our current energy mix, is preferable to burning coal, and has a role to play in the future. Yet the governors – and the developers who stand to profit – need to be honest about its true costs and what benefits it does and doesn’t provide.

And we’re not alone in looking for answers. Newspapers, local energy businesses and members of the public have argued that the region deserves a better accounting of the costs of the governors’ plan through a transparent public process. Some state officials have promised this will happen soon.

Based on a review of documents obtained from the states on the governors’ plan (a summary and an archive of the documents are at clf.org/foia), their economic and environmental analysis seems flawed and incomplete. In the search for hard data points, we offer three of our own.

$800 million (per year above current market prices)

That’s the cost, according to CLF’s analysis of Hydro-Québec and Northeast Utilities regulatory filings, to generate energy at Hydro-Québec’s new hydropower facilities on the Romaine River (now under construction) and deliver it to the New England electric market through a transmission project like Northeast Utilities’ proposed Northern Pass project.

On a per kilowatt-hour basis, we estimate the cost at 15.2 cents, which is more than three times the cost of energy efficiency and nearly twice that of recent land-based wind power contracts. If the number is even in the ballpark, locking in big purchases of imported hydropower and sinking billions into new transmission lines to carry it are hardly a recipe for energy savings. It appears that the New England States Committee on Electricity economic analysis, on which the governors’ plan rests, inexplicably assumed that the cost would be four times less than the published figures used in CLF’s analysis.

70 percent (the carbon pollution of natural gas power over the next decade)

That’s the greenhouse gas emissions that can be expected, according to Hydro-Québec’s own scientific research, during the first 10 years following the construction of a new large-scale hydropower facility, such as the Romaine River projects. The research assesses the net carbon effects of flooding vast boreal forests, which ultimately releases stored carbon in the inundated vegetation and eliminates the forests’ capacity to take carbon out of the air.

This peer-reviewed science utterly debunks the false assumption, at the core of the governors’ plan, the hydropower plank of Massachusetts’ climate plan, and Northern Pass’s ubiquitous marketing, that imported hydropower has no or minimal emissions. If new imports come from new dams in Canada and replace natural gas, the promised emissions reductions through the end of the next decade – the make-or-break decade to avoid catastrophic climate change – are overstated by more than threefold.

24 (times Hydro-Québec chose to curtail exports in one cold month of winter 2014)

That’s at least how many times, during cold weather in January 2014, Hydro-Québec chose to limit its power exports to New England over existing transmission lines, according to an internal NESCOE document. In other words, at times of greatest electric system stress and despite very high wholesale market prices, Hydro-Québec chose not to send power south, presumably to meet Québecers’ needs. This number casts considerable doubt on the reliability benefits of building more transmission lines for hydro imports, which could go unused or underutilized during the cold weather periods when, the governors say, we need more power for reliability.

These numbers show why CLF is pushing so hard, in appeals filed in three states, to get documents from NESCOE and the state officials. Before we go further down the road of levying a multi-billion dollar tax on electric customers to finance new gas pipeline and hydropower transmission lines, we need public debate and transparent scrutiny of all data and assumptions used by the governors. If they have badly miscalculated, as these ugly numbers suggest, New England can go back to the drawing board to pursue energy solutions that meet our short and long term energy needs without putting our pocketbooks, climate, and electric system at risk.

(Christophe Courchesne is a staff attorney for Conservation Law Foundation in Concord. He lives in East Kingston.)

A MUST READ: Get Ready for the New England Power Shortage. http://spectator.org/articles/60007/get-ready-new-england-power-shortage

It's turning out that a) the "energy crisis" is largely manufactured; b) the so-called economic shot-in-the arm to be provided by Northern Pass is invented; c) the claimed tax benefits to towns from Northern Pass would be pulled out from under them when the utility applies for abatements, reductions, and other dodges; d) the vaunted 1200 jobs is smoke & mirrors black-box modeling; e) the greenhouse gas emission numbers are inflated; f) etc. The only constant in the sorry saga of Northern Pass is that a) the potential for corporate profits remains so high that investors haven't pulled out. The real stakeholders in the Northern Pass project are the stockholders. And b) the towers would scar New Hampshire forever. Take that to the bank, if you can.

We've known for several years now that PSNH/Northeast Utilities/NorthernPass has been pulling the wool over our eyes. Sadly, some of the public, a number of legislators and other elected and appointed officials have been misled by a concerted effort to do so. These numbers, taken from NP's own filing data, as well as internal NESCOE documents hidden from public view until CLF forced them into the open, expose the corrupt process we've all witnessed for the past few years at least. Public disinformation, suppressed documents that are unfavorable to NP's case, hidden agreements, government and agency complicity -- for shame. NESCOE claims that a public process will ensue. When? When the insiders have already made up their minds and tailored offerings designed to shape public response to the energy insiders' advantage? It is about time that the public said ENOUGH. NO MORE BUSINESS AS USUAL. No more energy insiders with their fingerprints all over every piece of legislation, every regulation, this NESCOE process, or crawling all over a conference supposedly for Governors and Premiers. No more lobbyists skulking in the background of the regulatory process declining to be identified. No more foxes guarding the henhouse. Big Energy has had the inside track long enough. The citizens of New Hampshire deserve better; our democracy demands it.

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