Electricity is what powers trade between Quebec and New York

Hydroelectric power is a major part of the over $ 7 billion (U.S.) in trade between Quebec and New York. Quebec officials like to emphasize the “clean energy” aspect of hydroelectric power. Photo: James Morgan

Trade and political officials from New York and Quebec met recently in Albany to talk about the economic relationship between the state and province. More than $7 billion (U.S.) in business takes place every year between Quebec and New York, and so-called clean energy accounts for a growing portion of that trade.

In this case, clean energy means hydroelectric power, most of which is generated at the massive stations in northern Quebec along rivers flowing into James Bay. Due to Quebec’s abundance of rivers and lakes, hydroelectric power has ended up being the way almost all electricity in the province is generated. The province’s only nuclear and coal stations have been closed down.

Electricity has been going from Quebec to New York for over a century. Starting in 1912, the Les Cedres (Cedars) generating station on the St. Lawrence, supplied electricity to the Alcoa smelter in Massena, NY.

Increased demand for power, environmental pressures, and finally the energy crisis of the 1970s led to more of that “clean energy” from Quebec going to New York. Hydro-Quebec and the Power Authority of the State of New York (PASNY), reached a contract for 800 megawatts to go from Quebec to New York in 1973. This deal led to the construction of a 765,000 volt transmission line that enters New York not far from Fort Covington. The energy crisis and the resulting spike in the price of oil made using it for generating electricity much more expensive. A state with a high population like New York needed electricity. New York already had several nuclear power stations, including the soon-to-close FitzPatrick plant. After the partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, public and political support for nuclear power dropped sharply. No new nuclear stations have been built in the United States since then.

The spillway of the Robert-Bourassa Dam, part of the James Bay hydro project. Photo: P199, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

New York had large hydroelectric stations in the 1970s, the biggest of course were PASNY’s stations on the St. Lawrence and at Niagara Falls, but they couldn’t meet demand. The need for power in the Empire State coincided with the construction of the massive James Bay project in Quebec, and Hydro Quebec already had stations like Beauharnois, Manicouagan, and the power from Churchill Falls in Labrador to export. Quebec had far more power than it needed. Quebec was also looking to increase its economic and political profile independently of Canada. Selling electricity to American utilities was an excellent opportunity to do that. The deal and transmission line to New York laid the foundation for further big power deals and interconnections between Quebec and New England.

The proposed 333 mile Champlain-Hudson Power Express, which will deliver up to 1,000 megawatts of electricity from Quebec to metro New York City via a transmission line following Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, is the biggest development in Quebec-New York electrical exchange since the 1970s. When Quebec officials boast about “clean energy” forming the bulk of the trade with New York, they’re quite clearly banking on the future financial benefits from this project.

Of course, there are questions about just how clean hydroelectric power is. Flowing water does not cause air pollution, but areas flooded for reservoirs can lead to contaminated water that affects fish, wildlife, and the people who live nearby. Studies in the area of the James Bay development in northern Quebec indicated decayed vegetation in flooded areas led to increased levels of mercury in fish and the people who ate them. Construction and flooding also displaced traditional Cree settlements and hunting territory. When Hydro-Quebec announced a new development on the Great Whale River in the late 1980s, it was met with protest from around the world for those very reasons. The project was cancelled in 1994. Environmental concerns have again been raised during the planning and approval process for the Champlain-Hudson Power Express line.

The trade relationship between Quebec and New York has taken diplomacy in a different direction. The U.S. and Canadian governments have become less important in securing cross-border commerce, especially in the area of energy. Canadian provinces have constitutional responsibility for their natural resources, including hydroelectric power. Provincial politicians and government-owned utilities like Hydro Quebec are quite free to negotiate with state and Power Authority officials in New York. The only federal oversight needed in Canada is by the National Energy Board of Canada which regulates electricity exports. In New York, a power supply contract only needs the approval of the state Public Service Commission. Cross-border transmission lines, however, require federal approval.

The trade of “clean energy” between Quebec and New York means hydroelectric power. To call it entirely clean is however, not entirely accurate. No form of power generation is without possible negative environmental and social effects. That said, power-rich Quebec selling electricity to power-hungry New York has resulted in, and will likely continue to be, a mutually beneficial economic and political relationship between the province and state.

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