Canada has clean energy aplenty for the Bay State, but can’t we provide our own?
And much more Canadian renewable energy could be coming. From the rolling farmlands of the Maritime provinces to the shores of Lake Ontario, developers are building or planning nearly four dozen wind and hydroelectric projects in the next four years, enough to power more than a million homes.
Canada is the biggest exporter of oil to the United States, and one might expect environmentalists to cheer the prospect of exchanging a little of our dependence on foreign oil for dependence on foreign wind.
But some fear that a flood of clean power from Canada will undercut New England’s efforts to become a national leader in green energy and technology. Jobs could be lost, they caution, and local utilities may have less incentive to reduce their use of coal and other fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.
Concerns also exist that the construction of expensive transmission lines to bring renewable energy from Canada could drive up the region’s electricity rates, already among the highest in the country.
“If we are building a bunch of wind [projects] outside of Massachusetts but maintaining our fossil plants . . . that isn’t the answer,” said Ian Bowles, the state’s secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
But there are few unpopulated places in New England to put large renewable energy projects, and community opposition stalls many modest proposals. Massachusetts ranks 32d in the country in the amount of power generated by wind farms.
Bowles and other environmental leaders say conditions are becoming more favorable for locating alternative energy projects in New England. Large wind projects were recently approved in Maine, and a ground-breaking energy law that passed this year in Massachusetts will make it easier to build and buy local renewable power. A recent report concluded that enough such energy projects could be built in Massachusetts to meet the new energy law’s goal of getting 15 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
“Our first priority is to exploit that potential” renewable energy here, Bowles said.
New England’s need for renewable energy will increase rapidly in the coming years. September marked the start of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which aims to reduce global warming pollution from power plants in 10 Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states by giving utilities financial incentives to generate more electricity from renewable energy sources.
At the same time, New England states are accelerating goals to get increasing amounts of power from renewable energy – from a regionwide average of about 7 percent now to at least 17 percent by 2020, according to Independent System Operator New England Inc., which runs the region’s power grid. And those requirements are not close to what scientists say is needed to avoid the worst consequences of global warming: an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions worldwide by 2050.
Already, the lack of local projects has some states, including Massachusetts, importing renewable power from outside New England. Last year, 16 percent of the Bay State’s green power came from Canada.
As Canada brings additional projects online, some energy specialists say it will be able to send relatively cheap renewable power south that local projects may not be able to financially compete against. That could slow investment in green energy in New England.
New Brunswick, for example, has the potential for enough wind turbines to power more than a million homes, according to a study commissioned by the province, but it needs less than half of that energy locally. Quebec has enormous hydroelectric and wind projects planned.
“It’s not a bad thing, but you don’t want it to be the only thing,” said Stephen R. Connors, director of the Analysis Group for Regional Energy Alternatives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “You’d like to see this activity closer to home.”
But companies proposing Canadian wind projects say Canada’s vast tracts of undeveloped land will allow construction on a much larger scale than in New England. There are far more rivers to dam in Quebec. And winds also tend to blow more robustly in Canada, and in remote places where few people would complain about the way turbines look. Plus, local environmentalists add, renewable energy will have to come from everywhere it can possibly be built for the world to achieve deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.
“We don’t have the luxury of excluding many clean energy options,” said Michael Stoddard of Environment Northeast, a research and advocacy group. “If electric supply from Canada is affordable, reliable, and environmentally sound, we should consider it.”
Still to be decided is who will pay to get the green power to customers south of the border.
Many of the proposed projects are far from the power grid and transmission lines would have to be erected at a cost of about $1 million a mile. That means billions of dollars of infrastructure investment are needed. ISO New England is working with states and those involved in the electricity market to decide whether all the region’s ratepayers, or only those who use renewable power, will pay for the lines.
It is not clear how much ratepayers’ bills would increase if all customers were required to pay for transmission lines, an approach that would make renewable power less expensive. Connors of MIT said the financial cost would probably be small because transmission costs are a fraction of customers’ bills, and there is the added benefit of getting secure energy right over the border. Energy Secretary Bowles, however, is adamant that Massachusetts consumers should not pay for the lines, saying the power companies would be receiving a vast subsidy if it were allowed. Business groups say the same.
“These transmission lines could cost tens of billions of dollars. That is going to add a lot of money to ratepayers’ ” bills, said Robert Rio, senior vice president for government affairs for Associated Industries of Massachusetts.
How much Canadian renewable power is exported to New England will also depend on whether states give companies financial credits designed to encourage construction of these projects. Each New England state has specific requirements about what can be considered “green” power and where it should come from. It is not clear which Canadian wind, biomass, and hydro projects would qualify.
One project that qualifies for those financial credits in Massachusetts is the Prince Edward Island facility owned by Suez Renewable Energy North America. It began operating last year with 11 turbines and the company is almost done erecting 44 more, with plans to export virtually all the energy and sell its green credits in Massachusetts.
The turbines, near vast empty beaches in a landscape dotted here and there by houses, is a 14-hour drive from Boston.
“If there are two things Canada has, it is land and wind,” said Sean Whittaker, vice president of policy for the Canadian Wind Energy Association. “And there is a lot of interest if we can bring the resource to New England.”