MONTPELIER, Vt. — Environmental groups on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border are teaming up to study the impacts of the big hydropower developments of the provincial utility Hydro-Quebec.
The move comes as Hydro-Quebec has been renewing its courtship of the northeastern United States as a market for its abundance of hydroelectric power, which it describes as a clean alternative to electricity from generators that use fossil fuels like coal.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest has been pushing for legal recognition in the U.S. of Quebec hydropower as renewable, which would allow it to be sold at a premium to utilities in states requiring power companies to get some of their power from renewable sources. The Vermont Legislature is considering legislation to label large hydropower projects renewable.
Environmental groups agree that hydropower is renewable. “The water you don’t lose. It’s there,” said Suzann Methot, Quebec director of the one of the groups involved, the Canadian Boreal Initiative.
But renewable doesn’t necessarily mean green, the groups are quick to add. They point to increasing concern about the effects of building giant reservoirs behind power dams in the boreal forests of northern Quebec.
Mathew Jacobson, manager of the international boreal conservation campaign of the Pew Environment Group, an arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the peat bogs, wetlands and evergreen stands of the boreal forests store nearly twice as much earth-bound carbon dioxide as the word’s tropical rainforests.
One issue the groups, which include Jacobson’s and Methot’s as well as the Quebec-based Equiterre and the New England-based Conservation Law Foundation, want to study is releases of greenhouse gasses caused by construction of new dams. Newly flooded vegetation rots, releasing both carbon dioxide and methane, a greenhouse gas 20 to 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere, Methot said.
Hydro-Quebec spokeswoman Marie-Elaine Deveault said she did not wish to comment overall on the environmentalists’ call for studies. On the release of greenhouse gases by hydroelectric projects, she said it declines to background levels in six to 10 years.
Over the life of a typical hydroelectric dam, it ends up with “something around what wind power emits” in greenhouse gasses per kilowatt of electricity produced, she said.
“What we can tell you is that hydroelectricity is clean and renewable,” Deveault said. “It has numerous advantages, particularly in the fight against climate change.”
Other long-standing criticisms of northern Quebec’s massive hydropower development have included damage to caribou herds when their ancient migration routes are disrupted by new lakes, and flooding of the aboriginal Cree Indians’ traditional hunting grounds.
Charest has been working to address these concerns to avoid a repeat of the 1990s, when New York state pulled out at the last minute from a multi-billion-dollar deal to buy Quebec power under pressure from environmentalists and advocates for the Cree.
Last year, he announced a plan to preserve an area of northern Quebec about twice the size of Texas, with half to be free of all industrial development, including hydropower, and the other half to have new development restrictions.
“When they do a project, they try to lower the impacts more than they did 30 years ago,” Methot said of Hydro-Quebec. “They’re now always trying to have consent and agreements with the communities” of Cree.
But there are concerns south of the border as well, said Jacobson and Sandra Levine, a lawyer in Vermont for the Conservation Law Foundation.
If Hydro-Quebec is labeled renewable, it could satisfy the requirements faced by the region’s power companies that they buy renewable power, taking the market away from developers of solar, wind and biomass power, Levine said.
“We need both” Hydro-Quebec power because it is cleaner than the fossil-fuel-fired plants that generate most of New England’s electricity now, as well as homegrown renewables, Levine said. “We don’t want one … undermining the other.”