RI's energy future needs Canadian hydro power

Jul 26, 2013

Our air conditioners have been working overtime in this steamy summer. Our wallets will be lighter when the electricity bills arrive. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says to stabilize power costs, Rhode Island needs to look north to Canada.

Flick the wall switch and the lights go on. Turn the knob; the stove heats up. Push a button; the air conditioner hums.

We all know the importance of electricity in our lives, even if we take it for granted until a hurricane or winter nor’easter leaves us in the dark. What few of us think about as we go about our daily routine is where this power that is the blood of modern society comes from.

In the last Rhode Island General Assembly session, a proposal to purchase more electricity from large Canadian hydro-electric sources was shuttled off to a study committee. For our economic, environmental and energy future, Rhode Islanders should hope that the study recommends more reliance on hydro-electric power from our northern neighbors in the Canadian province of Quebec.

According to National Grid, the state’s largest electric utility, less than 5 percent of our state’s electricity comes from hydro-electric power. Almost 40 percent is generated from natural gas and nearly 30 percent is from nuclear power sources.

Maybe all you have to know about our electricity mix is that we get more energy to light our homes in Rhode Island from burning coal than from water flowing over a dam.

A bit of history is relevant here. As far back as the 1960s, forward thinking New Englanders have looked to Canadian hydro power for consistent electricity sources at stable prices. At that time a visionary Vermont governor, Philip Hoff, proposed that his state purchase a large ownership interest in a Canadian hydro development and that the state own the power. Hoff’s plan was beaten back by private utilities, who opted instead to proceed with nuclear plants on the bogus theory that nuclear power would be ``too cheap to meter.’’

Then in the 1970s, after the Arab oil boycotts, the snaking lines at gas stations and the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown  in Pennsylvania, New Englanders had second thoughts about hydro power from Canada. Once again, Vermont led the way but Rhode Island political figures had a crucial role: Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy and Ed Burke, Garrahy’s chief energy advisor, were major advocates of a deal that brought electricity from Canada to New England.

Now, Quebec and its huge province-owned hydro-electric company have electricity to export. Hydro-Quebec has harnessed 75 rivers on which it operates 60 hydroelectric generating stations. Gov. Lincoln Chafee has long favored importing more Canadian hydro, but after opposition from the National Grid utility and some environmental groups, the Assembly punted the governor’s legislation off to a summer study commission.

National Grid says Chafee’s proposal does not put the company in the best position to negotiate the best hydro deal for customers. Some environmental groups, such as the Conservation Law Foundation and the Sierra Club, don’t like the plan to string a new high-voltage transmission line through New Hampshire’s White Mountains to wheel the power to southern New England. And some point to the promise of developing wind power off our Atlantic coastline as an alternative.

Well, consumers and businesses ought to be skeptical of the arguments of electric utilities in this realm; over the years they have done little to control electricity costs. Yes, there will always be an environmental cost to any plan to generate  large-scale electricity sources. Damming rivers in Quebec has long upset native communities in the northern part of the province. Any time humankind alters the natural world there is a downside.

Quebec exports its province-owned energy so that prices can be kept low for Quebec residents and to deliver low rates to manufacturers, especially the aluminum smelting companies.

The beauty of New Englanders is that we respect our history and honor the environment; the region has long been home to some of the nation’s toughest environmental protection laws. The bane of this attitude is that it leads to the Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome that views any change as disruptive to the way we live.

We need to balance the White Mountain views with the need to provide consistent electricity at prices that homeowners and manufacturers can live with. It’s great to try to develop a new energy industry from the breezes that whip along our coast, but proposals such as Deepwater Wind are still in their infancy and the costs are much higher than the decades-old proven resources of Canadian hydro power.

The much larger environmental question is why should New England utilities be allowed to burn coal in plants belching pollution when clean hydro-electric energy is available and relatively cheap. ``When you still have Brayton Point churning out Greenhouse gasses.... there is no question that hydro is a better alternative,’’ says Richard Saudek, the Vermont energy expert who helped negotiate the early Canadian hydro deals.

Connecticut and Vermont have recently approved contracts to import more Canadian hydro electricity. As you pay those air conditioning bills, Rhode Islanders ought to be asking our politicians why the Ocean State can’t be in the forefront of bringing in clean, affordable energy for our 21st century economy and environment.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org