The powerful rivers that course through Canada’s vast northern wilderness helped define the country and are one of its greatest natural resources. Using dams and turbines, Canada has tapped the rivers to build a growing hydroelectric industry, with New England as its chief export market.
As New England governors are eager to reduce their states’ carbon footprints, Canadian leaders see the potential for more growth. Thus, in recent talks with their Canadian counterparts, the region’s governors have proposed a regional initiative to greatly expand power imported from the North in long-term power contracts.
Vermont already buys energy from Quebec-Hydro, the government-owned power company that dominates large-scale hydroelectric power production north of the border.
Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, a long-time supporter of Canadian hydropower, has proposed a law to spur increased power imports from Canada. But opposition to Chafee’s proposal has sprung up from utility National Grid and environmental groups, with both questioning whether it benefits Quebec-Hydro more than Rhode Island.
In Rhode Island, National Grid imported 13 percent of the electricity it sold to customers in May, according to a monthly disclosure notice, although how much of that was hydro is not specified. Small-scale domestic hydropower facilities produced 4.5 percent of the state’s energy.
The Chafee-backed bill would require National Grid to solicit bids for a 150-megawatt, 15-year energy contract from “large-scale” hydropower producers, of which Quebec-Hydro appears to be the only firm to qualify.
National Grid opposes the bill out of concern that it will hike Rhode Island electricity prices at a time state ratepayers are likely to be absorbing the costs of offshore wind power projects.
National Grid officials say such a mandate would put them in a poor negotiating position and give Quebec-Hydro the leverage to extract a high rate from Rhode Island customers.
“As currently written, the proposed Energy Reform Act of 2013 does not put National Grid in the best position possible for the company to acquire hydro power at the best price for our customers,” said National Grid spokesman David Graves in an email statement about the bill. “The legislation places increased, and unfair, leverage in the hands of the energy sellers.”