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Economy

Canada Wants U.S. Offshore Wind Too

Quebec doesn’t want to bail out the Northeast again. It wants a regional grid.

Power lines.
Quebec Quebec Quebec
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The Northeast has a mismatch between its climate ambitions — some of the most aggressive decarbonization targets in the country — and its resources for renewable energy. While the Pacific Northwest has rivers and gorges, the Southwest and Southeast have lots of sun, and the Great Plains has lots of wind, the major renewable resource in the Northeast lies on the Atlantic Ocean, where plans for billions of dollars in offshore wind investment are being delayed or even outright canceled as high costs take its toll on the industry.

But what the Northeast does have is a long border with Quebec.

The Canadian province plays a major role in the decarbonization plans for the entire region, thanks to the construction of transmission lines that could conceivably shuttle power both ways across the border. The Champlain-Hudson Power Express will connect 1,250 megawatts — enough to power about one million homes — of Quebec’s hydro resources to New York City by the spring of 2026, while the New England Clean Energy Connect is scheduled to complete its construction through Maine down to Massachusetts by 2025, conveying a similar amount of power.

Quebec already is a world leader in decarbonization, getting nearly all of its electricity from its massive network of dams managed by the state-owned Hydro-Québec. But it also has its own power needs — and ambitions — besides being a source of bulk power south of the border. The province wants to fully decarbonize by 2050, which means doubling its electricity consumption and devoting a big chunk of additional capacity to electrifying heat, transportation, and industry. That could include using Quebec’s non-carbon-emitting power to produce hydrogen to replace fossil fuels in industrial processes.

“There is a selective approach taken — we don’t want all the demand,” explained Serge Abergel, the chief operating officer of Hydro-Québec, referring to which projects would get access to the province’s plentiful and cheap renewable power. “We’re taking a selective approach with the government of Quebec to determine which projects will bring most value and transition the economy.“

So where does that leave exports? Could the Northeast count on Quebec for clean power as it sees, at best, delays in building out its own renewable generating fleet?

“This relationship is evolving,” Abergel told me. While the two transmission lines are under construction, “it’s been a very difficult experience,” due to political roadblocks, he said. The New England line took a famously circuitous legal route to construction, having been first defeated in a referendum, which was then overturned in a lawsuit.

And as for new export projects, simply throwing up new transmission lines south is a thing of the past, he said, having explained to Bloomberg that its baseload commitments are reserved for the New England and New York transmission lines. This means that any new transmission lines — and there have been several proposed besides the two under construction — will have to be more than just bulk power exports.

Going forward, Hydro-Québec wants to use its hydro power to complement ample renewable resources in the neighboring regions of the United States.

“We believe our neighbors will stay the course,” Abergel said, referring to neighboring states’ decarbonization plans. “There will be lots of intermittent renewables all around us.”

That combination of hydro power and wind power, John Parsons, a senior lecturer in the MIT Sloan School of Management, told me is “a flexible system ... that can balance renewables in New England.” Theoretically, when it’s very windy on the Atlantic Coast, a renewable-rich New England (and New York) would sell power to Quebec, letting the province conserve its hydropower (i.e. keep water in its reservoirs) for when the wind dies down and renewables are not powering the Northeast’s whole grid.

“Our resource is extremely flexible in terms of being dispatchable. These two resources complement one another very well when you aim at an 100% clean grid,” Abergel told me.

When Parsons and two colleagues modeled the flow of electricity between New England and Quebec, they found “it is optimal to shift ... away from facilitating one-way export of electricity from Canada to the U.S. and toward a two-way trading of electricity to balance intermittent U.S. wind and solar generation.” Making Canadian hydropower “a complement, rather than a substitute” for low-carbon energy sources in the U.S. would make deep carbonization about a fifth to a quarter cheaper.

But this would require a change in mindset on both sides of the border — not to mention to the economics of offshore wind. “It’s clear that policymakers originally ... did think of [hydro] as a substitute,” Parsons said. While the existing transmission lines can send electricity both ways, the market structure for large scale trading of electricity both ways doesn’t exist, Parsons said. “The idea of it going two ways is not in the current contracts … You have to sign protocols and negotiate agreements to smooth out trade between.”

Developers in the United States have heard loud and clear that Quebec is interested in more than just sending power in one direction. The proposed Twin States Clean Energy Link, which recently won support from the Department of Energy, is explicitly designed for electricity to flow both ways. The planned line would run from the Canadian border through Vermont and New Hampshire

“As a bi-directional line, Twin States will enable clean energy producers in New England, such as offshore wind, to export excess capacity to Quebec during times of lower domestic demand, providing a critical boost to the region’s clean energy economy,” according to the project’s website, where it’s explicitly sold as a way to boost the region’s wind power.

While Abergel would not say what he directly thought about the specific Twin States project, he did say that “so far we do have interest in the concept” of connecting New England and Quebec into a regional balancing system. “Much work needs to be done to determine how to bring value to both regions.”

“We’re at a crossroads right now where there’s a certain way of doing things that’s now behind us, and being achieved, and we have this pause where we reflect on the future and how to make it as efficient as possible,” Abergel said. “There’s lots of opportunities,” he told me.

But, the idea that “we have lots of power to send down south and can do another transmission line wherever, we’re not there anymore.”

Matthew Zeitlin profile image

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.

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