Conference Explores Electric Power From the North
- By Joshua E. Brown
Under the shadow of the 1970’s oil crisis, Vermont’s then-governor Richard Snelling negotiated to purchase electric power from Quebec. In July 1984, the government-owned utility Hydro-Quebec and Vermont finalized a long-term contract, and over the following decades a large portion of the state’s electric power has flowed down from the north.
Today, under the shadow of climate change, the relationship between Vermont and Hydro-Quebec, now the world’s largest hydroelectric producer, is coming back into sharp focus.
To discuss this relationship — and other facets of the dynamic cross-border production and purchase of electric power — more than 200 people gathered March 23-24, for a conference, “Power from the North,” at the University of Vermont.
"In some ways, the story of the past — a governor looking to the north, bringing hydro resources into Vermont and New England, building a new transmission line — is the story that's happening again," said Richard Watts, director of UVM’s Center for Research on Vermont, and one of the conference’s co-organizers.
There is a wealth of carbon-free hydroelectric power being produced in Quebec, many of the conference participants noted. And on the other side of the border, many states are hungry for new sources of clean energy as climate change goals and closing nuclear plants put increasing pressure on officials and markets.
“Southern New England states are looking to reduce their reliance on natural gas and are de-carbonizing their electric systems. Hydro could play a large role in that,” said Watts. “But how does it get to southern New England? Where would the transmission lines go? What would Vermont get out of it? Those are all questions we need to think about here in Vermont and were part of the conversation over the last few days.”
The long relationship between Quebec and Vermont “has made us the true pioneers of clean energy in North America,” said Pierre Arcand, Quebec’s Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, speaking in one of the conference’s panels. However, “if we want to fight against climate change, then we need, together, to set a price on carbon,” he said. “We have geographic proximity. And the values that we share make us natural partners,” Arcand said. “We remain open to a range of market possibilities.”
But the conference organizers did not create the event to “advocate for more power imports from Quebec,” said David Massell, director of UVM’s Canadian Studies Program and one of the co-organizers. “Our goal is to frankly debate the causes, costs and consequences of bringing power from the North.”
“This is a unique conference, bringing together a highly diverse group of participants,” Massell said. “We have citizens, students, business leaders, academics, elected officials, an aboriginal leader, environmentalists — and they're all talking to one another about one of the great issues of our time: How do we go forward to meet our energy needs in a genuinely sustainable way?”
Several of the conference panelists spoke of a complementary strategy of increasing Vermont’s portfolio of both “distributed” and large-scale renewable power. That is, increasing household and other small-scale electricity generation from sources like solar, wind, and micro-hydro, while also opening more transmission lines and market connections to bring in large-scale hydropower from Quebec and off-shore wind power from the Atlantic — if New England states are going to reach their greenhouse gas reduction targets, including Vermont’s goal of obtaining 90 percent of its power from renewables by 2050.
“We need a fundamental transformation of our energy system that's been around for 100 years,” said speaker David Cash, the former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Public Utilities. “We should be saying: let's bring [renewable energy] transmission in everywhere we can.”
First Nations view
But energy development of any kind can be costly, with winners and losers. Even “clean” dams flood land, displacing wildlife and people. One speaker, Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, worried that past would be prelude. He noted that many aboriginal people have been excluded from the decision-making and benefits of development in Quebec hydropower over the last 50 or more years — and, more generally, excluded for centuries. “We’re at the mercy of a process we don't control," he said, “What we see today is a government project which sits on unextinguished aboriginal title — for the Innu, that's a reality today — and yet still moves ahead with full force.”
Including a business-to-business meeting on the second day, the conference ranged over the complex history — and possible futures — of the Vermont-Quebec electric energy relationship. “Panelists’ presentations were kept short, leaving time for audience commentary,” said UVM’s Richard Watts. “ The result was a genuine conversation.”