Green power vs. green power

An artistic impression of the final design of the Muskrat Falls dam in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

Kai Ryssdal: The Canadian oil pipeline company TransCanada said today it's going to be ready in a couple of weeks to submit a new proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline. They'll pick a route that avoids environmentally sensitive areas down here that helped torpedo an earlier plan. That'll surely mean more discussion of Canadian oil sands and whether they're worth the energy it takes to get oil out.

But there's a different energy fight brewing in a different part of Canada over hydroelectric power. Canada has $50 billion in new hydro projects proposed or under construction, and plans to ship a lot of that electricity to the U.S. Unlike the oil sands, hydro is renewable, but it's not necessarily green.

Emma Jacobs reports from Newfoundland & Labrador

Emma Jacobs: Roberta Benefiel is sitting on a rock overlooking the Churchill River in central Labrador, a rural scenic region of Northeast Canada. She has a picture of her parents sitting on this same rock and now she's looking out over the same waterfall that's in the photo. She's wistful. These rapids will disappear if a planned dam on this site gets built.

Roberta Benefiel: The destruction that's going to be caused if this project goes ahead. I don't know what else to say. I could cry.

It's the familiar dam controversy. On the one side, power-hungry consumers. On the other, environmentalists bemoaning the loss of a wild river. But here's a twist -- the first twist -- Labrador just has 30,000 people in a region the size of Arizona. So this project is not just for the locals. It's not even just for the neighbors.

Gilbert Bennett: We look at this project being an important source of renewable energy for Northeastern North America.

Gilbert Bennett works for Nalcor, the energy corporation leading this dam construction project. He says the dam will supply renewable energy to the whole province, but up to 60 percent of it could be exported to the United States. Which brings us to twist number two -- importing Canadian hydroelectricity could destroy another fragile ecosystem.

Carol Murphy: You could pretty much wipe out any investment in renewable resources.

Carol Murphy is the executive director for the Alliance for Clean Energy New York. Right now there's a move away from nuclear power and coal to renewables. Many states have passed laws that a certain amount of electricity must come from renewables -- solar, wind, biomass. In New York, it's an ambitious 30 percent by 2015. But if Canadian hydro counts towards that clean energy goal, it could undercut investment in other clean energy projects. That's because, according to Dan Dolan, who heads the New England Power Generators Association, it could really hurt the price of electricity.

Dan Dolan: That's going to really crater that price and send it very far down and really eliminate an incentive for a lot of developers to come in and try and develop new sources of power generation within the region.

Philip Raphals: Everything has impacts. You know, a careful process would think it all through.

Philip Raphals works with the Low Impact Hydro Institute, an organization that sorts out good dams from bad -- in terms of impacts on neighbors and the environment. He thinks the dam in Labrador could cost more than it brings in benefits. But...

Raphals: There's a lot of energy in that water. And it's certainly worth looking at if that's the right answer.

Raphals says the key thing is that all dam projects are different. He hopes that in the long run, more U.S. states will buy their power from lower-impact dams -- regardless of location -- because even if new hydro pours across the border, it's still, he says, just a drop in the bucket.

In Labrador, I'm Emma Jacobs for Marketplace.

About the author

Emma Jacobs is a native of Boston. She's contributed to NPR's National Desk, and to Living on Earth, The Environment Report, Only a Game, Voice of America, and Word of Mouth.
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Energy has always been important in the march of Human Progress. Inexpensive and reliability are the goals. These hydroelectric projects seem to meet that need. Most so called “green energy” seems to lack both of these elements. What the “Greens” want is a perpetual energy machine. They want energy that is cheap to them because it is being paid for by someone else. Why are we even listening to them?

In such a sparsely populated location, surely there must be another wild river for Ms. Benefiel to enjoy. Dams these days are built with a lot more consideration of wildlife than those built in the early 1900's. Who knows, in addition to selling off the extra energy, being a location for recreational water activity might add an economical boost to the area too.

There are no circumstances where lower energy prices are a bad thing. Many of the various renewable energy projects would only exist in world of either subsidies or artificial mandates. In the end, higher energy prices hurt the poor, slow economic growth and ulimately destroy wealth creation in the middle and lower class. There is no good reason to make Massachussetts rate payers buy electricity from Cape Wind at $.25 a kwh when a competitive electricity market would deliver electricity at $.05 a kwh. If the renewable energy market would focus on those projects which deliver cost competitive electricity, the business would take off. Now, the slightest change in subsidy rebates or mandating purchasing causes the market to collapse.

So, Mr. Dolan seems to be saying that the importation of Canadian hydro power would reduce energy prices ... and, that's a bad thing?
If policy makers want to ensure that "local" renewable energy projects are built they can do that through legislation. Currently, NO New England states recognize hydro electric energy from Canada as satisfying requirements of enacted renewable portfolio standards.

By the way: That "bemoaning the loss of a wild river" argument is hardly new or isolated to Newfoundland.

After years -- no, make that decades -- and hundreds of millions of dollars studying, and re-studying, and studying-yet-again the impact and economics of a major hydro project in Alaska, we're finally set to move ahead on the Susitna River Hydroelectric Project which, of course, will mean the loss of a major wild river.

It would power much of the "railbelt" population centers of Alaska and, more importantly, displace a coal-burning power plant near Healy which, despite the loss of a river would most certainly be an ecological plus. Evironmentalists who care about such things came along kicking and screaming but they did, mostly, come around.

Most of Alaska's hydro projects enjoy one notable distinction from those down south: they are located where no notable fish migrations would be impacted. We prize our fish pretty highly up here.

I'm not sure where Ms. Jacobs was reporting from, but the province she refers to is known as Newfoundland and Labrador. It's absurd to listen to Americans sputtering about "green" energy as they burn millions of tons of coal to produce power and whine when gas prices rise. Americans know the price of everything and the cost of nothing. Stop pretending and just crawl back up your backsides.

No doubt inadvertently, this story sounded self-contradictory.

On the one hand, those large hydro projects are descibed as an "important source of renewable energy." (Gilbert)

That was followed by Jacobs' statement that "it could undercut investment in other clean energy projects," and "eliminate an incentive for ... new sources of power generation."

But the story was concluded with: "... because even if new hydro pours across the border, it's still, he says, just a drop in the bucket."

When I pencil that out, something doesn't add up.

If 1) if one clean energy source
2) is a drop in the energy bucket, then
3) it hardly eliminates the need to seek all those alternative clean energy sources.


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