Wind turbine project on Quebec's North Shore quickly spiralling into an election issue

The Coalition Avenir Québec has decried the costs of the Apuiat project, which has been under negotiation since 2015. The Liberals, meanwhile, say it's "essential" for economic development in northern Quebec and for First Nations communities.

CAQ decries Apuiat project's costs, while Liberals say it is 'essential' for economic development

Hydro-Québec says wind energy costs 10 cents per kilowatt hour, whereas other methods can produce electricity for as little as 2.9 cents per kilowatt hour. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

A Quebec wind farm project — under negotiation since 2015 — is quickly becoming a contentious political issue, in the days leading up to the official start of the provincial election.

Members of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) have panned the Liberal Party's plan to construct some 50 wind turbines near the town of Port-Cartier, in Quebec's Côte-Nord region.

The Apuiat project would produce an estimated 200 megawatts annually in partnership with the private renewable energy firm, Boralex, and it's being developed in partnership with Innu leaders in the province.

However, CAQ party members say the $600-million project will come at the expense of Hydro-Québec customers — and it may not be worth the reward at a time when the province has an energy surplus.

The debate was sparked by an Aug. 6 letter penned by Hydro-Québec's president and CEO, Éric Martel.

Addressed to Innu Nation chiefs and leaked to the media late last week, Martel said there's been a lack of transparency around the Apuiat project and challenged its economic benefits.

The wind farm would cost the Crown corporation $1.5 to $2 billion over 25 years, Martel wrote.

Innu Nation say project will bring economic benefits

The Innu Nation, a group that represents nine Innu communities in Quebec, disputed Hydro-Québec's claim the project would force Quebecers to shoulder a $1.5-billion price tag, however.

"We are working to make this project an economic project with no impact on customer bills,"  the group said in a statement Monday.

The primary goal of the project, it stated, is to generate economic benefits from the Innu communities at a competitive price.

The project is an opportunity for "historic reconciliation between the government of Quebec and the Innu," the Innu Nation said.

Talks are slated to resume Wednesday, in hopes of reaching an agreement that is beneficial for "all parties," it said.

Hydro-Québec's board of directors, which met to discuss the issue Monday, said the talks are continuing privately between Innu leaders and other stakeholders.

Michael Penner, the chair of the board, said it "supports management in pursuing an open and constructive dialogue with the Innu Nation."

Hydro-Québec says wind energy costs 10 cents per kilowatt hour, whereas other systems can produce electricity for as little as 2.9 cents per kilowatt hour.

By 2026, it is estimated that Hydro-Québec will have nine to 13 billion kilowatt hours of surplus electricity per year.

CAQ decries costs

The CAQ has hopped on this issue in the days leading up to the Oct. 1 vote, saying the project will produce electricity Quebec doesn't need for a price considerably higher than hydro power.

CAQ MNA Simon Jolin-Barrette has challenged the Apuiat project's costs, especially since Hydro-Québec has an energy surplus. (Bernard Gagnon/CBC)

MNA Simon Jolin-Barrette, representing the CAQ in the Borduas riding on Montreal's South Shore, told CBC Montreal's Daybreak that the project is not a "win-win" for all Quebecers and First Nations.

"We are in an energy surplus and we need to sell it," said Jolin-Barrette. To do that, the first step is to find buyers of that extra electricity, he said.

He criticized Premier Philippe Couillard's push to sign the deal just before the election after three years of negotiations.

"There's no market right now to build that kind of project," he said.

"We don't want, for the next 25 years, to have an extra bill of $1.5 billion on all Quebecers."

​Liberals say project is 'essential'

For his part, Couillard is standing firm despite the criticism, saying the project will bring hundreds of jobs to the region.

Premier Philippe Couillard is standing by the plan, saying it will bring economic development to northern Quebec and help support First Nations communities. (Radio-Canada)

"For me, this project is essential for the development of northern Quebec and for the future of First Nations," Couillard said.

"And we have the choice: Do we want to develop northern Quebec with a climate of collaboration [and] coexistence with the First Nations, or in a spirit of discord and continuous confrontation?"

Energy and Natural Resource Minister Pierre Moreau told Radio-Canada that, beyond the project's value for the Innu Nation, it is an "excellent project" for all of Quebec.

With files from Radio-Canada