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Hydropower firms, power-line developers push energy bill

With all the big money behind Big Hydro, it was only a matter of time before Canada's hydropower companies and New England power line developers teamed up.

They have united behind a singular cause: persuading the Massachusetts Legislature to pass a bill compelling National Grid and Eversource Energy to enter into long-term contracts that would bring hydropower into the state from Canada.

The group doesn't have a name just yet. But the organization does have a poll already. The survey results, showing strong popular support for this legislation, are slated to be pushed out to the public on Thursday.

The crew, so far, consists of Brookfield Renewable, Hydro-Quebec, Nalcor Energy, TDI New England, Emera, and SunEdison. (Eversource Energy and its Northern Pass power-line project are notably absent, but a spokesman says the company supports the group's efforts and is represented, in a way, by its Northern Pass generating partner, Hydro-Quebec.)

This coalition's poll of 500 likely Massachusetts voters was conducted by Opinion Dynamics last month: The survey found that 81 percent either strongly favor or somewhat favor legislation that would encourage utilities to enter into contracts for wind and hydropower.


Seems like a ringing endorsement from the public, right? As you might guess, it's not that simple.

The goal of this legislation would be to ensure that we become less reliant on natural gas, which is already responsible for roughly half of New England's electricity, and to also help the state meet its ambitious greenhouse-gas reduction goals. An added bonus: helping improve the grid's reliability at a time when a number of major power plants have been shut down or will soon be closed. Given the competition with home heating uses in the winter, this reliance on natural gas is often cited as a reason for our relatively high electricity prices. We can't get much more juice from Canada without building power lines first, but long-term contracts could be used to help finance those lines.


Governor Charlie Baker has already filed a long-term contract bill aimed at drawing as much as 2,400 megawatts worth of electricity down from Canada; it also contains language to encourage wind farms to be connected to any new power lines along the way. The House of Representatives will take up Baker's bill and similar legislation next year.

Not everyone's a fan. Some environmental advocates worry that state-sanctioned dam power from Canada could crowd out smaller-scale renewable options around here. The region's existing power plant operators say the bill creates an uneven playing field for them. The poll, unsurprisingly, didn't mention the criticisms.

These contracts would likely be handed out through a competitive bidding process. However, there's no guarantee that the state would be able to land contracts for hydropower that are cheaper than the market rates for electricity, particularly when the costs of building a big power line are baked into the equation. But this poll could still give the pro-hydro lobbyists some useful ammunition when they head back to the State House to make their case in 2016.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.