Opposition to a proposal by Governor Chafee to bring hydropower from Canada to Rhode Island continued at a legislative hearing this week, with representatives of a variety of energy and environmental groups decrying the controversial move.
“How many times have you seen all of the environmental organizations on the same side as National Grid, on the same side as the fossil-fuel generators, on the same side as the renewable energy developers?” Jerry Elmer, staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said at the hearing Wednesday night before the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture. “Not often. We’re all opposed to the bill.”
The legislation would expand the state law governing long-term contracts for renewable energy by requiring National Grid, Rhode Island’s dominant electric utility, to solicit bids for up to 150 megawatts of large-scale hydropower from Quebec and other eastern Canadian provinces.
Chafee argues that because Canadian hydropower is plentiful, renewable and relatively cheap compared with wind or solar power, it should be part of the energy mix in Rhode Island and the rest of New England, a region that has grown increasingly reliant on natural gas to generate electricity.
But environmental groups, including the Environment Council of Rhode Island, the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action, say that setting aside contracts for Canadian hydropower would defeat the purpose of the long-term contracting statute, which went into effect in 2009 and was designed to stimulate the development of instate renewable energy projects by guaranteeing them a source of revenue for 15 or 20 years. Handing out contracts to Hydro Quebec or other Canadian companies would send Rhode Island ratepayer money out of state without creating local jobs or supporting local companies, they contend.
Moreover, National Grid, as well as the power plants represented by the New England Power Generators Association, object to the change because they say it creates a mandate to purchase large hydropower. From National Grid’s standpoint, that would weaken its position in trying to negotiate the lowest possible purchase price with hydropower companies. And from the view of other power suppliers, the amendment gives Canadian hydropower companies an unfair advantage .
“Why do we have to play by one set of rules and someone else gets a better deal?” said Daniel Allegretti, vice president at Constellation Energy.
Chafee, who testified at a House commission hearing on the bill two weeks ago, was not at the Senate hearing. Richard Licht, Chafee’s director of administration, was there on the governor’s behalf and said the concerns about the change have been overstated. It would not create a mandate for Canadian hydropower, he said. The amendment requires National Grid only to solicit proposals, not to sign agreements.
Including Canadian hydropower would also not be done at the expense of local renewable companies, Licht said. The change does not carve out a portion of the state’s renewable energy supply for hydropower. It creates a pool of hydropower in addition to other renewable sources.
The bill is intended as a signal that Rhode Island is interested in buying Canadian hydropower, just as other states in New England, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, are, said Licht.