Green power vs. green power

Emma Jacobs Mar 6, 2012

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.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.