Ottawa pitches Atlantic Loop as grand plan for clean energy, with few details

As federal Liberals outline details of a proposed regional energy grid to wean the Maritimes off coal, they're touting Labrador hydroelectricity as a possible major player.

Throne speech mentions, in just mere words, effort to move away from coal power

Newfoundland and Labrador MPs Seamus O'Regan and Yvonne Jones both say the Atlantic Loop, a possible power transmission project mentioned in Wednesday's throne speech, is big news for Labrador's hydroelectric capabilities. (CBC)

First, there was the Atlantic bubble. Now, there's movement to knit the region closer together with the "Atlantic Loop," a catchy phrase that the federal Liberals presented in the speech from the throne Wednesday, promising grand ideas about a future of clean energy in Atlantic Canada.

The Atlantic Loop, however, earned just a one-line mention in the speech, as a plan "that will connect surplus clean power to regions transitioning away from coal." 

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan, who is also the MP for St. John's South-Mount Pearl, clarified on Thursday the transmission project is meant to replace the Maritimes' coal supply with hydroelectricity from Labrador and Quebec, an idea that requires a significant infrastructure investment.

"We would build transmission lines to tie the Labrador-Quebec grid into New Brunswick, and then into Nova Scotia," O'Regan told CBC News.

Nova Scotia is already set to receive a chunk of hydroelectricity from Labrador's Muskrat Falls via the underwater Maritime Link, as part of the province's efforts to lower its fossil fuel dependence.

But Labrador MP Yvonne Jones says the loop could carry the excess 300 megawatts or so of Muskrat Falls power that has not yet been spoken for, and require more besides.

"It provides future opportunities for us to do other hydro development projects in Labrador, and I think that's the key here," Jones told CBC News.

While the Atlantic Loop may be new phrasing, the idea of a regional electric system is not, and was outlined in a federal government report in 2018 on regional electricity co-operation.

This illustration, from a 2018 federal government report on a regional energy plan, shows some ideas for new infrastructure to let hydroelectric energy flow throughout Atlantic Canada. (Ministry of Natural Resources)

More power generation?

Jones says the big item for Labrador is the possibility of another, new hydroelectricity generation project: Gull Island, which has long been floated as a potential dam on the Churchill River and which was set aside in favour of developing a smaller project at Muskrat Falls. 

"The Atlantic Loop is going to require a lot of hydro power," said Jones, who in an interview could not put a figure on that power requirement.

"There will be a requirement for new projects and for new alternatives and that puts Labrador back in the driver's seat, in terms of whether we go forward with additional hydro development projects or not."

Jones acknowledged hydroelectric projects are a touchy subject in Newfoundland and Labrador.

An aerial photograph of powerhouse at the Muskrat Falls site, dated February 2020. (Submitted by Nalcor Energy)

"I know that in Labrador and in the province there will be tremendous apprehension toward future hydro development projects when you see what has happened from Muskrat Falls," she said.

Power flowed from the Muskrat Falls dam into the Labrador electricity grid Tuesday for the first time, a milestone in the project that has been marked by massive cost overruns, construction delays stretching into years, and a public inquiry into its sanctioning.

"Muskrat Falls was a very poorly executed project and very poorly managed project through most of its lifetime in construction. So if anything, hopefully we've learned some lessons," she said.

But Labrador isn't the only potential player in Atlantic Loop clean power. Jones says Quebec — with its deep hydroelectric expertise — would also be involved, and there would also be room for New Brunswick to harness the powerful tides of the Bay of Fundy.

"You're going to see a lot more research being done on tidal power," she said.

Both industry and the federal government have poured time and money into potential Fundy projects in the past, with one failed turbine stranded on the bay's floor since 2018.

A turbine for the Cape Sharp Tidal project is seen at the Pictou Shipyard in Pictou, N.S., in May 2016. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Out of the loop?

O'Regan said there has been behind-the-scenes work done on the Atlantic Loop already, including with Quebec, a province whose energy relations with Newfoundland and Labrador have been historically frosty and involved multiple court battles over hydroelectric power from Churchill Falls.

"We've been working with Quebec and with Maritimes energy ministers on this," said O'Regan. "There is a great deal of enthusiasm for the Atlantic Loop."

It appears Newfoundland and Labrador's premier and energy minister have not yet been brought into the loop. In a St. John's news conference Thursday, Premier Andrew Furey said any details on the new plan were too premature to discuss.

"We ... heard the mention of it yesterday in the speech from the throne, but I am excited that Newfoundland and Labrador can be that green battery that drives potentially though Quebec, potentially through our existing assets, potentially through upgrades. I'm speculating here about what this could look like," said Furey.

"This is very new," said Andrew Parsons, the minister of industry, energy and technology, adding that he like reporters heard about it in the speech from the throne. 

The so-far vague idea has created a lot of questions, even for clean energy insiders.

"Is this investment for something that already exists? So, support for the Muskrat Falls project, which we of course need, or is it something additional to that? Does it open new doors?" said Kieran Hanley, the executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Environmental Industry Association.

"[There's] a lot of interest to what this is, but no answers."

Neither Jones nor O'Regan had timelines attached to the Atlantic Loop project, and Jones said there would be details coming in the "next couple of months" as to who major players could be in the plan.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from the St. John's Morning Show

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now