Montreal·Analysis

New York City wants more of Quebec's clean energy, but how green does that make Legault?

The enticement of Quebec’s cheap, carbon-light energy is nudging one of the most populous areas in the United States away from coal and gas.

Premier likes calling Quebec the 'battery of North America,' but has no plan to cut carbon emissions at home

Premier François Legault, seen here at the National Assembly on April 10, is thrilled New York City is interested in importing Canadian hydroelectricity. 'Hydro-Québec could become the green battery of the American northeast,' he said. (Jacques Boissinot/CP)

Since taking up the Quebec premier's gig last fall, François Legault has told anyone who will listen that he wants to turn Quebec into the "battery of North America."

That's his well-worn way of describing his government's ambitions to increase Hydro-Québec's energy exports.

In recent months, he's hawked the province's hydroelectricity at a first ministers meeting in Montreal, while visiting Premier Doug Ford in Toronto, and in Boston, at a one-on-one meeting with Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.

He's brought up Quebec's hydro capacity, as well, with New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs and Vermont Governor Phil Scott.

The response has been tepid on the Canadian side. Ford turned him down, and Higgs appears more interested in pipelines.

But in New England and New York, where electricity rates are among the highest in the U.S., there is growing interest in tapping more of Quebec's supply of low-carbon energy.

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the metropolis by 40 per cent below 2005 levels over the next decade.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday the city will need to import 'zero-emission Canadian hydroelectricity' in order to meet its emissions targets. (Hans Pennink/Associated Press)

To do so, de Blasio said, the city will need to import "zero-emission Canadian hydroelectricity."

He called for negotiations to begin immediately on building a supply line that would connect a Hydro station south of Montreal with the Big Apple.

Legault couldn't conceal his joy upon learning of de Blasio's intentions, nor could he refrain from throwing out his catchphrase once again.

"Wow," he said on Twitter. "Hydro-Québec could become the green battery of the American northeast."

All aboard the Power Express

The negotiations that de Blasio was referring to involve a project called the Champlain Hudson Power Express, which would see the construction of a 536-kilometre underground high-voltage line.

Under current design plans, the line would have 1,000 megawatts of transmission capacity — enough energy to power one million homes.

The nearly $3-billion project has been in the works since 2008. It was delayed initially by local concerns about its route and, more recently, by slow sales to potential clients.

But with de Blasio's pledge to have all public infrastructure in his city powered by clean energy, that last hurdle may have been cleared.

"It's especially significant because it could justify the costs of the project," said Pierre-Olivier Pineau, who holds a chair in energy sector management at HEC Montreal.

"You need to have an anchor client to justify the construction, and after that, you can find other clients."

This is the second bit of good news in recent weeks for Legault's energy export aspirations.

Last year, Hydro-Québec exported a record amount of electricity, adding $744 million to its net income. (Radio-Canada)

A proposed high-voltage line that would carry Quebec's hydroelectricity to Massachusetts recently received backing from regulators in Maine, though environmental approval is pending.

The export deal was struck under the previous Quebec government, but Legault has been closely monitoring the project's progress. It could potentially be worth $10 billion in revenues over 20 years for the provincial utility.

"There is an increased interest in Quebec's hydro power because this is an energy that can provide firm delivery, and ... it's not a fossil fuel,"  Lynn St. Laurent, a spokesperson for Hydro-Québec, told Daybreak Tuesday.

What about Quebec's emissions?

Increasing energy exports is of dual importance for Legault.

First, and most obviously, it represents more money for the government.

Last year, Hydro-Québec exported a record amount of electricity, adding $744 million to its net income.

In all, the utility transferred $4.5 billion in revenues to the Quebec government in 2018, meaning exports accounted for nearly 17 per cent of that dividend.

But there is a political consideration that could prove just as valuable for the freshman premier.

Exporting hydroelectricity is, for the moment anyway, the extent of Legault's climate change plan.

Benoit Charette, right, is the CAQ government's second environment minister. The government was yet to present a comprehensive plan on how it will meet Quebec's long-term emissions targets. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

As it became apparent during the election campaign that environmental policy was a weak spot for the Coalition Avenir Québec, Legault tried to sell his energy export strategy as his way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It remains his preferred answer when pressed on why his government — which is already on its second environment minister — hasn't yet presented a comprehensive plan for meeting Quebec's emissions targets.

His opponents point out exporting green energy does nothing to reduce Quebec's own carbon footprint.

Legault's plan also depends entirely on finding a market for hydroelectricity, avoiding the jurisdictional battles that can ensnare electricity export projects (Pineau notes that New York state is cooler to the idea of importing energy than is New York City).

But as it stands, Quebec's cheap, carbon-light energy is helping nudge one of the most populous areas in the United States away from coal and gas.

That may provide Legault a measure of environmental credibility, as long as he is able to demonstrate, soon, how his government will reduce emissions at home.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He covers politics and social affairs.

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