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Is Vermont’s use of HydroQuebec power ‘greenwashing’?

Carillon Hydro-electric Dam, Pointe Fortune, Quebec. Photo by Mac Armstrong.
Carillon Hydroelectric Dam, Pointe Fortune, Quebec. Photo by Mac Armstrong.

Vermont has counted power from in-state hydro and dams in northern Quebec for a large piece of its renewable energy pie for more than a decade. And the state’s reliance on HydroQuebec to meet clean energy goals has continued to grow. In fact, the Montreal-based company supplies more energy to the state than any other utility source. 

Fifty percent of Vermont’s electricity is tied to HydroQuebec’s massive hydropower operations north of the border, according to the state’s most recent Annual Energy Report.

But environmentalists say the state is greenwashing power that has resulted in catastrophic damage to ecosystems, significant releases of carbon emissions from submerged trees and the displacement of indigenous communities in northern Quebec. HydroQuebec’s 550 dikes and dams have destroyed 3.8 million acres of native lands across Quebec. 

HydroQuebec has been a big part of the state’s electricity portfolio for decades, with Vermont sourcing 30% of its electricity from the power giant. But when the state’s Renewable Energy Standard went into effect in 2017, it required utilities to buy at least 55% of their energy from renewable sources.

Utilities have met this requirement by making straight purchases of 23.8% of the state’s power from HydroQuebec. In addition, companies are buying credits from the Montreal-based company. When the credits are factored in, the percentage jumps to nearly 50%. Altogether, Vermont gets 62% of its electricity from hydropower. 

When combined with nuclear sources, the state touts an electric supply that is 92% free of carbon, making it the cleanest in the country. Vermont’s nuclear energy primarily comes from Seabrook in New Hampshire and Millstone in Connecticut. 

Vermont is relatively unique in New England in that it allows hydropower to count as renewable energy under its Renewable Energy Standard. Vermont didn’t used to include hydro over 200 MW, but in 2010 Act 159 was passed, removing that ceiling when Vermont utilities were renegotiating their contracts with HydroQuebec.

Last year two other states followed suit, Massachusetts and New York, which both modified their standards, allowing large hydropower to meet clean energy mandates.

Scientists and experts are critical of counting HydroQuebec power as a renewable source because it comes at an enormous price. They say the state needs to take a close look at its reliance on large-scale hydropower to account for the impact on the environment and alleged human rights violations of Indigenous groups who continue to contest their stolen and flooded lands.  

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This past October, the Innu tribe sued HydroQuebec and Churchill Falls Corp. for $4 billion over a large hydro project at Churchill Falls in central Labrador. A coalition of six tribes formed between July and September of last year to demand reparations.

A spokesperson for HydroQuebec said that the company was limiting public comment on the matter as it is currently pending before the court. 

“These facilities were not built by HydroQuebec, nor are they owned or operated by HydroQuebec,” said the spokesperson, who also confirmed that the energy produced at Churchill Falls does flow onto HydroQuebec’s network. 

A contested 1969 contract stipulates that most of the power and profits from the dam end up with HydroQuebec through 2041. 

The carbon question

The state of Vermont keeps track of greenhouse gas emissions through an annual inventory that tallies up emissions associated with electricity, transportation and heating. The most recent “Vermont Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory and Forecast” was published in January 2020. 

Collin Smythe, the author of the report, says the state counts hydropower as emissions-free energy.

“We do consider it to be to be zero carbon, but certainly do acknowledge that there are emissions associated with that electricity production, but they’re kind of outside of the scope of what we cover in our inventory,” Smythe said in an interview.

“We do know that there are at least methane emissions that are due to hydroelectricity. We just don’t attempt to quantify those,” Smythe said. “To my knowledge, I haven’t seen anything for the state that actually tries to quantify that in any way.”

The state’s reporting methodology dates back to 2007, and it’s consistent with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, guidelines for greenhouse gas inventories. The state has used the same emissions framework since for consistency, he said.

While the IPCC uses a 100-year timescale to measure global warming potential, some critics say a 20-year time scale is necessary to address imminent climate changes. 

Aerial photo of a HydroQuebec dam. HydroQuebec photo

“The IPCC has refused to address carbon emissions from hydro,” said Margaret Sheehan, coordinator of the North American Megadam Resistance Alliance and energy lawyer. “It’s a huge political issue, and so Vermont regulators and politicians are buying into this narrative and not acknowledging the carbon loophole,” said Sheehan.

Electricity accounts for only 2% of greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont, a small percentage compared to sectors like thermal and transportation that make up 75%, according to the Annual Energy Report.

But MIT professor Brad Hager says writing HydroQuebec off as a clean source of energy contradicts peer-reviewed scientific literature. Looking at present-day emissions, some of the dams in the company’s portfolio emit more carbon than coal plants, he said. 

Shallow reservoirs that cover vast woodland areas can be extremely dirty from a carbon emissions point of view, according to Hager. That’s because when a dam is first constructed large areas of land are flooded, and trees that once captured carbon start to decompose under the water, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. 

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While water levels fluctuate, HydroQuebec’s dams cover more than 6,000 square miles on average, or about 3.8 million acres. 

HydroQuebec says that its energy is clean and that greenhouse gas emissions have been misrepresented. “That level is far below natural gas and fossil fuels,” said Lynn St-Laurent, a spokesperson for the company. She said that HydroQuebec has no plans to build new reservoirs.

“We’re very confident about the science on this,” said St-Laurent.

Hager thinks HydroQuebec’s estimate is far too low. A 2021 paper by Levasseur, one of HydroQuebec’s scientists, provides more details about how emissions are being calculated. 

“This is a big step forward because previously they had just been throwing out a number,” said Hager. Still, he disagrees with some of the assumptions in the paper, such as that there are no emissions when the reservoir is frozen. The paper also uses the emissions in the late summer as the average for the whole year. But that value doubles in the spring, according to HydroQuebec’s own measures. 

“Basically what HydroQuebec is doing is taking the low value and multiplying it by the least number of days they can get away with,” said Hager.

“The first thing you do is remove the sink of Co2 coming out of the atmosphere, like burning the Amazon,” said Hager.

But decomposition is different from burning in that the trees stick around for a while. “You don’t get rid of them instantaneously. It takes a long time for the trees to decay,” said Hager. As forests decay, carbon continues to be emitted into the atmosphere.

Brad Hager, MIT professor. MIT photo

Not everyone agrees on how long it takes a tree to decompose. “HydroQuebec says it’s 10 years. I don’t think the data supports that,” said Hager. “I think it’s a 30- to 50-year time scale to get rid of the carbon stored in trees when the land is flooded.”

A newly constructed dam emits more greenhouse gasses than a 100-year old dam, he says.

The greenhouse gas impact of a reservoir also ranges widely from one reservoir to another. It depends on the geography where a dam is built. Reservoirs that are constructed in narrow mountain valleys like those above tree-line in Switzerland are relatively clean because they cause minimal deforestation. 

There is also variation among the 27 HydroQuebec reservoirs that generate power exported to states like Vermont. HydroQuebec operates more than 550 dikes and dams. 

“One of the reservoirs on the La Grande system fed by Caniapiscau doesn’t generate much power but has a big lake that it’s impounded. It has an impact which is probably 1.5 to 2 times that of a coal plant,” said Hager. He used numbers published in peer-reviewed studies by EG Hertwich and Scherer and Pfister to calculate emissions.

“Hydro Quebec is saturated in terms of demand, so they’re building new reservoirs to build power for New York, Massachusetts, and I expect, Vermont,” said Hager.

Hager said that across the HydroQuebec system, using “present day emissions” he estimated that on average the company’s reservoirs emit 175 grams of Co2 per kilowatt, or about half of what is emitted from natural gas.

“That’s less greenhouse gas emissions per unit of power, but it’s nowhere close to zero,” he said.

“There is a significant carbon content emissions profile that results from these mega dams,” said renewable energy lawyer Kimberly Hayden. “Vermont has not looked at that.”    

Indigenous land

Beyond greenhouse gas emissions, there are other environmental and human impacts associated with flooding thousands of acres of land to create large hydro projects. 

James Papatie, a member of the Kitcisakik tribe, has seen these impacts firsthand. Three main reservoirs have been constructed on traditional Kitcisakik territory: the Dozois, Cabonga and Beskatong. HydroQuebec has flooded more than 15,000 square kilometers, the equivalent of more than 3.8 million acres.

The Bouleaux River has been swallowed up by the reservoirs, which has made it impossible for the Kitcisakik to continue traditional hunting and fishing practices, like following sturgeon up the river during the spring spawning season. The river was also canoed as a way of getting around the region, but that was lost along with the flooding.

“No one was ever consulted or compensated,” said Papatie. “The dams destroyed our way of life. Our original village was flooded. Beavers were flooded in their dams, and the sturgeon spawning grounds disappeared.”

The Kitcisakik were displaced twice in the 1970s due to the flooding, first from the site of their original village and then again from the west side of Lake Dozois. 

“They tried to displace us a third time to increase the water levels in the Grand Lake Victoria,” said Papatie. Those efforts were halted after public hearings prevented the project from moving forward.

Famines followed the initial flooding of the reservoirs because it was no longer possible to set nets in the traditional places. “The first years when the reservoirs were filled with water, we dried moose meat and fish to survive,” said Papatie.

Then, mercury started getting into the food chain. Papatie said that pike was one species that was especially impacted. Since then, he said, many in the community have died of cancer.

Mercury is naturally occurring organic material, but when it enters the water it undergoes a bacterial conversion becoming methylmercury, which is a lethal neurotoxin. The raising and lowering of water levels in a reservoir is what triggers this process, and allows methylmercury to start accumulating in the food chain. 

“Our resources and our trapping territories are flooded,” said Papatie. “We’ve been dispossessed of our territory.”

Papatie’s tribe joined the coalition of six tribes that are working together to oppose the construction of additional projects, like the Appalaches-Maine Interconnection and the New England Clean Energy Connection that would establish transmission lines from southern Quebec into Maine.

The coalition came together last summer. The Kitcisakik tribe joined in September of 2020. The coalition says their aim is to get HydroQuebec and both the provincial and federal Canadian government “to negotiate with the First Nations involved in order to clearly establish the terms under which this electricity can be produced and exported to the United States.”

“For those who buy energy from HydroQuebec, they need to realize that it destroys cultures, the environment,” said Papatie.

“HydroQuebec understands the importance of land claims and territorial issues,” according to spokesperson Lynn St-Laurent. She said those matters are normally discussed between the federal and provincial governments, and that 40 agreements have been signed in the last four decades between indigenous communities and HydroQuebec.

St-Laurent said there are no cases of methylmercury poisoning, although there is a rise in mercury levels during the first years of impoundment. 

“This has been a priority for our scientific teams. We have managed this with communities and with local health agencies,” she said.

St-Laurent said there have been other positive steps between indigenous communities and the company, such as a recent joint project called the Apuiat Windfarm, between Innu communities on Quebec’s north coast and HydroQuebec. 

But Papatie said that those in Kitcisakik are still dependent on generators. They don’t have running water or electricity. They’ve tried working with HydroQuebec, said Papatie, but the company didn’t want to move forward on a project. 

A renewables shell game

In Vermont, some renewable energy experts are questioning the state’s dependence on large hydro to meet clean energy goals. The state has an ambitious goal of reaching 90% renewable energy by 2050, using strategies like electrification to clean up the thermal and transportation sectors. 

Those goals reflect the energy utilities are taking credit for through an energy trading program where renewable energy credits can be bought and sold. 

When electricity is generated, the energy is distributed to the grid. But once it’s on the grid, those specific electrons can’t be traced. The renewable credit is a way of keeping track of where the energy is coming from. 

While Vermont imports 23.8% of its total electricity from HydroQuebec, that number swells to 48.9% after REC sales. Because Vermont is the only state that defines large hydro as renewable in its Renewable Energy Standard, credits from HydroQuebec aren’t worth very much. Solar and wind credits generated in Vermont, on the other hand, have a higher value in the New England market. 

Valuable credits from solar and wind projects are sold to other New England states. To meet state goals, Vermont utilities then replace that energy by buying cheap HydroQuebec credits to meet state renewable energy requirements and keep rates low. 

Renewable energy lawyer Kim Hayden says the way renewable credits are bought and sold is deceptive.

“I get that, the desire, the motive, the easiness of saying, ‘we’re done, we’re all good with the electricity supply,’ but there’s some foundational problems with that,” said Hayden, who lives in Burlington. 

“If we’re fueling electrification of the thermal sector, the transportation sector with power that is not in fact green and may be contributing to increased carbon emissions, then the whole thing it’s a house of cards that just falls apart,” she said. 

Steve Crowley, the energy chair of Vermont’s Sierra Club, pushed in last year’s legislative session for a cap on large hydro projects. 

“It is our position, and has been for over three decades, that large hydro is a harmful source of power, and that local, truly carbon neutral, renewable power offers great advantages in resilience and economic development,” Crowley testified, in a hearing on S.267, a bill about Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard that ultimately languished and was not passed into law.

The bill sought to expand local renewable projects, which are called Tier II, under Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard.  

Energy from HydroQuebec falls into Tier I of the energy standard, which includes existing sources of renewable energy.

The energy trading scheme was designed to encourage investment in renewable energy, but Crowley and others in the state say it’s not effective when it comes to combating climate change. 

“We purchase these renewable energy credits from HydroQuebec, which is really a total fraud because those credits that we purchase really don’t do anything. They don’t add good power to the mix, they don’t reduce greenhouse gasses, they don’t do anything except allow you to check a box,” said Crowley. 

Both Crowley and Hayden say buying renewable energy credits from HydroQuebec is a way to greenwash Vermont’s electricity supply. The scheme does not reduce the state’s overall climate emissions. 

The trading scheme was introduced to incentivize renewable development across the region. For instance, if it was less expensive to develop in Maine, utilities in Massachusetts could chip in toward the cost. 

But Vermont renewable developers say that if the money is going to HydroQuebec, it’s not helping develop new renewables in the region. 

Renewable developers in the state are frustrated by the policy. Incentives for solar technologies are being reduced, as state officials turn their attention to the thermal and transportation sectors. 

“The narrative that has taken hold in Vermont is kind of giving a false sense of security or comfort that things are OK on the electricity side. It’s just fundamentally, it’s not true anymore,” said James Moore, who founded SunCommon, Vermont’s largest solar company. Before founding SunCommon, Moore was a political and environmental organizer for Vermont Public Interest Research Group. He helped to craft Vermont’s current Renewable Energy Standard. 

“It is a tool that is supposed to get new renewable energy built cost-effectively,” said Moore. “When there’s lots of renewable energy coming online, it generates lots of RECs, and the REC price comes down so it’s a way to get new energy coming on cost effectively.”

“But what Vermont did, is we said, ‘we’re going to count these RECs that nobody else gives credit to as satisfying our renewable energy goals,” said Moore. 

RECs from HydroQuebec cost around $1, while RECs from other types of renewable production, like solar and wind, cost $40. After being produced in Vermont, the $40 RECs are then sold out of state to keep rates low. 

Ed McNamara, director of regulated utilities in the Department of Public Service, said it’s a question of balancing costs and benefits. Tier II is expensive in Vermont, according to McNamara. And that expense can be balanced by getting cheap energy in the Tier I, or maintenance, category. 

“If our primary focus is reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said McNamara, “we would try to do it at scale, looking at large-scale projects.”

But Vermont’s Tier II focuses on small-scale projects that are mostly located within the state. Tier II is a small percentage of the state’s Renewable Energy Standard, when compared to other states in the region. 

“If we’re serious about renewables, why are we focusing on high cost solar in Vermont when we could do lower cost offshore wind?” said McNamara. “It’s always a question of trade-offs.”

For instance, while small solar projects may be expensive, they bring economic development benefits. 

But, McNamara said, when it comes to adverse effects of energy decisions made in Vermont on indigenous people to the north of the border, those trade-offs become more difficult to weigh.

“With the economies of scale, Hydro Quebec is less expensive than most other renewable resources,” said McNamara. “That helps keep electric rates low for low-income Vermonters who pay a disproportionate share of their energy costs or proportionate share of their total salary towards energy costs.” 

A rate increase from spending on more expensive renewables would impact low-income Vermonters the most, according to McNamara. 

“The equity issue is something that you can’t really distill down to the economics,” he said. “That is a much, much more difficult question.”

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