SOURCE: Inside Climate News
DATE: October 4, 2020
SNIP: State and corporate officials are pushing for construction of a 53-mile-long power line corridor cutting right through [Maine’s North Woods], known for its natural beauty, diverse wildlife and recreational fishing.

The corridor is part of the New England Clean Energy Connect, one of two major and highly controversial transmission line projects meant to deliver Canadian hydropower from the government-owned utility HydroQuébec to New England electricity consumers.

As New England states rush to green their electric grids and combat the accelerating climate crisis, the simultaneous push from Canada to expand the market for hydroelectric power from its vast water resources has offered these states a critical lifeline at just the right moment.

The other big hydropower transmission line project will deliver 1,000 megawatts of power, or enough to serve approximately one million residential customers, to the New York City metropolitan area, which includes the city, Long Island, and parts of the Hudson Valley, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

The 333-mile-long Champlain Hudson Power Express project will consist of two high voltage direct current cables running underground and underwater from Canada, beneath Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, to Astoria, Queens.

There, the Champlain Hudson project will interconnect to a sector of the New York electricity grid where city and corporate officials say the hydropower supplied can help reduce the fossil fuels that currently comprise significantly more of the base load than in other parts of the state. Though New York has yet to finalize a contract with HydroQuébec over its hydropower purchase, developers plan to start construction on the $2.2 billion project in 2021 and say it will be operational in 2025.

The New England project consists of 145 miles of HVDC transmission line that will run largely above ground from the Canadian border, through Maine.

Central Maine Power, which will construct the Maine transmission corridor, says the project will decrease wholesale electric rates and create thousands of jobs. Company officials expect to receive all necessary permits and begin construction by the year’s end, with the project completed and in service by 2022.

With only months until developers start making both projects on-the-ground realities, they have seized public attention within, and beyond, their regions.

Officials and transmission line proponents say importing Canadian hydropower offers an immediate and feasible way to help decarbonize electricity portfolios in New York and New England, supporting their broader efforts to combat climate change.

But some environmental activists say hydropower has a significant carbon footprint of its own. They fear the projects will make states look “greener” at the expense of the local environment, Indigenous communities, and ultimately, the climate.

Many people take for granted that because hydropower production doesn’t involve burning fossil fuels, it’s a carbon-neutral endeavor. But that’s not always the case, depending on where hydropower is sourced.

Large-scale hydropower projects often involve the creation of hydroelectric dams and reservoirs. The release and flow of water from the reservoir through the dam provides the energy necessary to generate hydropower, which long-distance power lines, or transmission lines, carry to its intended destination—in this case, New England and New York.

Bradford Hager, an earth sciences professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said with this kind of lobbying, it’s no surprise that so many people have what he sees as a misconception that hydropower is necessarily a form of “clean” [sic] energy.

Hager testified last year to the Army Corps of Engineers that six of HydroQuébec’s reservoirs are among the top 25 percent of greenhouse gas emitters among hydro plants worldwide, with emissions ranging from about that of a modern natural gas power plant to over twice that of coal power plants.

Emissions aren’t the only “dirty” consequences of Canadian hydropower. While Mainers hope to protect their state’s serene forests from further development, New Yorkers hope to preserve the health of one their most historic waterways—the Hudson River.

Environmentalists fear laying transmission lines in the Hudson’s riverbed could disturb decades-old contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

That contamination would have consequences for humans as well as aquatic life, said John Lipscomb, Riverkeeper’s vice president of advocacy.

Despite New York State’s Department of Health’s strict guidelines regarding the capture and consumption of fish from the Hudson, Lipscomb said he regularly sees “people fishing for consumption all the time and everywhere.”

He also expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of the river’s bottom-dwelling and bottom-feeding creatures, including the Atlantic sturgeon, an endangered species.

In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designated “critical habitat” for the Atlantic sturgeon in the Hudson River.

Further north, the human and environmental costs of these two projects come as no surprise to many Indigenous people, who feel HydroQuébec’s extensive hydropower system was built on their communities’ backs.

Today, Canada’s Indigenous communities experience higher rates of poverty and unemployment than its overall population, which Indigenous leaders attribute to the historical displacement of, and disinvestment in, their communities, which have often felt to them like “sacrifice zones” for the state’s hydropower projects.

Now, some Canadian Indigenous communities—including the Pessamit Innu, Wemotaci Atikamekw and Pikogan Anishinabek First Nations—hope U.S. allies can stall these projects across the border while they demand fair treatment and compensation from the Québec and Canadian governments at home.

Those First Nations communities do not live in the vicinity of the transmission line projects that will connect HydroQuébec’s hydropower grid to New England and New York, but they oppose them nonetheless for what they see as the continuation of a legacy of injustice.