Utilities Want Renewable Label For Hydro-Quebec

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(Host) Vermont utilities are eager to renew their long term relationship with Hydro-Quebec. And to help Hydro-Quebec export more power, the utilities want the Legislature to designate large scale hydro power as a "renewable" resource.

But as VPR’s John Dillon reports, some environmentalists are concerned that the change would hurt the emerging renewable market in New England.

(Dillon) Hydro-Quebec diverts and dams large river systems to generate tens of thousands of megawatts. The construction projects are massive. One project alone — the Romaine River dam complex now under construction — would generate 1,500 megawatts. That’s about one and a half times Vermont’s total demand for electricity.

Hydro-Quebec wants to sell power to southern New England. But there’s some worry that exports from the provincial utility could swamp the renewable market in other states.

(Kilian) "People are paying attention to what’s happening in this Statehouse right now throughout the region from an energy policy perspective."

(Dillon) Chris Kilian is the Vermont director for the Conservation Law Foundation. He told a Senate committee that if Hydro-Quebec power is defined as "renewable," then smaller-scale green energy projects may not be able to compete.

Currently large-scale hydro is not considered renewable energy under Vermont law, in part because of the environmental impact of the dams. But the provincial utility wants the change because it hopes to sell renewable energy credits – called RECs – to utilities in other states. Utilities can buy the credits to show that they get a certain percent of their power from renewable sources. Kilian says it’s a bad idea to give Hydro-Quebec access to the renewable credit market.

(Kilian) "The purpose is to incentivize the creation of new renewables of certain types that aren’t commercialized right now. And opening the percentages of the REC market to that amount just destroys the public policy purpose behind those market provisions. So we oppose that idea."

(Dillon) Environmentalists say that if Vermont deems Hydro-Quebec power renewable, other states may follow.

An agreement reached between the utilities and Hydro-Quebec allows the Vermont companies to share the benefits of the renewable credits sales. So the utilities are lobbying hard for the change in the renewable definition. Robert Dostis is with Green Mountain Power.

(Dostis) "If the Legislature deems it renewable, then there’s potential for real value, economic value, for Vermont ratepayers."

(Dillon) Dostis doesn’t share Kilian’s concern about the impact of the change on the renewable market.

(Dostis) "Every state decides what they deem to be renewable, deserving of RECs, renewable energy credits. There’s no reason to assume that they are going to replace primary RECs, the RECs that come from wind and solar, the premier RECs, with something like large hydro."

(Dillon) But Kilian asks if the change won’t do anything, why are the utilities so eager to see it?

(Kilian) "Hydro-Quebec and the two Vermont utilities really seem to care about this a lot to the point where they’re willing to testify very strongly that this should be the case and that the intention behind it is to open up those markets and to really drive this power into southern New England."

(Dillon) There’s also debate about whether large projects that re-arrange entire river systems should be considered renewable. Alex Lee is an environmental activist from New Hampshire who has canoed the Rupert River in northern Quebec. The river is now being diverted for a Hydro Quebec power project.

Lee says that land flooded by large reservoirs releases methane – a potent greenhouse gas – as the vegetation decays.

(Lee) "So it’s really scary to be deeming this green power when no one’s really looked at the methane question."

(Dillon) Hydro Quebec says it has studied the greenhouse gas impacts of its projects. And it says preliminary findings show that greenhouse gas emissions from Quebec reservoirs are 35 to 300 times lower than from fossil fuel plants. 

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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