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editorial

Mass. must welcome hydropower, even as it promotes wind, solar

Deep in the forests of Quebec, a network of dams churns out massive amounts of hydropower that could help quench New England’s thirst for electricity and bolster the region’s climate-change agenda at the same time. Owned by the province of Quebec, Hydro-Quebec is the world’s largest hydropower producer, and some of its electricity already trickles onto New England’s grid, hundreds of miles away. Now, as Massachusetts and other states in the region hunt for cleaner energy sources to replace fossil fuels and aging nuclear reactors, Quebec officials want to expand.

But despite its proximity, Hydro-Quebec has never received the warmest of welcomes here, amid anxieties that if large-scale hydropower receives all the incentives offered to green energy suppliers, an onslaught of cheap Canadian power would crowd out wind, solar, and other emerging clean-energy technologies in New England. Now, though, a new bill before the Massachusetts Legislature, backed by the Patrick administration, finally strikes the right balance. The legislation invites more Canadian hydropower into New England, without making it eligible for the full range of supports reserved for the cleanest energy sources. The Legislature should approve it.

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The bill, sponsored by state Representative Mark Cusack and state Senator Barry Finegold, would require electric utilities to put out a large solicitation for valuable long-term power contracts that would only be open to cleaner energy sources. Two previous rounds of solicitations in recent years have only been available to wind, solar, and small-scale hydropower generators. They’ve yielded contracts that have helped foster the fledgling alternative energy industry. The new legislation envisions a far larger solicitation in the third round and, for the first time, opens the bidding to huge dams like Hydro-Quebec’s. But it would not change a separate set of requirements that utilities purchase an ever-increasing percentage of their power from the cleanest sources, like wind and solar.

In addition to its climate benefits, using more hydropower is also strategically sensible: Right now, the region relies too heavily on a single energy source, natural gas, leaving consumers vulnerable to price spikes like the one in January. But two factors have prevented Canadian hydropower from playing a bigger role in the region: inadequate transmission lines from Quebec, and political uncertainty about how precisely Canadian power would mesh with the state’s clean-energy regulations. The bill would help address both concerns.

No fewer than four proposals have emerged to increase transmission capacity for Canadian power, including the controversial Northern Pass line through New Hampshire. But the same glut of cheap natural gas that has driven gas use in Massachusetts to such high levels has also made power lines to other generators harder to finance. By making Canadian hydropower eligible for long-term contracts, the legislation would make building new transmission infrastructure more economically feasible.

Hydro-Quebec’s political issues have been even thornier, since as an energy source hydro doesn’t fall neatly into either the clean or dirty category. Water rushing past turbines doesn’t produce greenhouse gases, but the destruction of forests for dams does exact an environmental toll. Plus, if utilities were allowed to count large hydropower toward their renewable requirements — as NStar, now part of Northeast Utilities, long urged — the incentive to develop local alternative energy sources like Cape Wind would vanish overnight. The new legislation would move past that debate, essentially creating a third category of energy source that’s not entitled to all the protections for wind and solar, but still gets preferential treatment over fossil fuels through access to long-term contracts.

Granted, it’s not universally accepted that cleaner energy from Canada is preferable to fossil-fuel generation closer to home. As coal plants shut down, some towns worry about a loss of revenue. But that’s a good reason to get moving on wind and solar projects in Massachusetts. When critics say that Canadian workers stand to benefit from the bill, they’re right. But that’s not an argument for the status quo; it’s an advertisement for what local governments have to gain if they welcome new renewable power generators.

The Legislature should, however, take steps to ensure the language of the bill establishes a neutral playing field among eligible energy sources. While Hydro-Quebec is probably the only generator that could realistically provide all the electricity envisioned in the bill by itself, there should be no unnecessary barriers to another bidder or combination of bidders. Multiple small clean-energy producers might be able to offer a better overall deal than Hydro-Quebec.

A final complaint, lodged by some power generators, is that, with the price of natural gas rising, market forces will make the transmission lines to Canada viable without any state intervention. But gas prices fluctuate, and one spike in January doesn’t change the reality that gas production in the United States has been rising for years. Given the urgency of tackling climate change, it would be unwise to put progress at the mercy of volatile energy markets. This bill could get more energy into the grid, without imperiling New England’s other alternative energy programs, and deserves approval.

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