Power Shifts to Quebec

Posted Nov. 23, 2009, at 6:46 p.m.

Maine has spent a lot of time building a relationship with neighboring New Brunswick, with energy as a major focus. The recent announcement that Hydro-Quebec plans to take over NB Power has the potential to alter that relationship. How and how much has yet to be determined, but Maine would be wise to gain a better understanding of the proposed deal and what opportunities it presents and forecloses to ensure the state’s interests don’t get lost in the financial and bureaucratic wrangling that is sure to ensue.

Late last month, Hydro-Quebec announced it planned to acquire much of NB Power, New Brunswick’s electric utility. While details of the plan, which would need government approval in Canada, have yet to emerge, it likely will change the electricity landscape in Maine.

“It would be nice if we knew more about their intentions,” Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said recently, adding that the announcement caught state officials off guard.

“It may be a great idea,” the Aroostook County lawmaker said. “But what does it mean for us?”

For northern New England and its neighbors in Quebec and the Maritime Provinces, a major component of that landscape is the desire to get electricity to southern New England and the New York City area, where it is in demand.

Large wind companies are looking to Maine as a site for their turbines, because the state’s rural landscape makes it easier to locate them here than in more populous urban areas. But the power those turbines would generate is mainly meant for the urban markets to our south. That region’s requirements for renewable power will increase demand for wind-generated electricity.

To meet that demand, however, additional power lines are needed to move it south. Both Central Maine Power Co. and Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. have proposals to increase existing transmission capacity.

Hydro-Quebec also wants access to the southern New England market, which is one reason it proposes to buy NB Power, which is already connected to the New England grid, through Maine.

If Hydro-Quebec owns those lines, it will make it easier for the utility to send its own power to the Boston area. It could also make it more difficult for Maine companies to do so.

Rather than wait to see if this happens, Maine officials need to be more aggressive in determining Hydro-Quebec’s goals and finding ways to match them with Maine’s goals.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will play a role as well. The U.S. agency will require the companies, which already sell power in this country, to file documents to show that they will not have undue influence on the market, an issue because of the large size of Hydro-Quebec. A FERC decision will affect the rates Hydro-Quebec can charge.

Here in Maine, regulators must ensure that Maine generators have access to the company’s transmission lines and that Aroostook County, which is not connected to the rest of the state’s electrical grid, but to New Brunswick’s, continues to be well-served.

It can best do that by beginning a dialogue with officials in Quebec.

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