Letter to the editor: Question 1 and the climate

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My biggest concern as an environmentalist is the future of the planet. This is why I intend to vote no on question 1.

The most important aspect of question 1 is its relation to addressing the climate emergency. We have heard little in the debate about its connection to climate change. Opponents of the power line claim there are no climate benefits. There are several reasons why this is not true.

One claim is that Hydro Quebec will be buying fossil energy elsewhere to replace what they are sending into Maine. There is no evidence that this is true. The PUCs of both Massachusetts and Maine investigated this claim and concluded that this is not the case. Even if it were true in the near term the line will serve an important function in decarbonizing New England and Quebec in the longer term.

Another claim is that hydropower is dirtier than coal. We investigated this in a column in early May of this year. In a life cycle analysis Quebec’s hydropower is comparable to wind and solar in CO2 output–about 1/30th that of coal.

Then there is the question of how much carbon is no longer sequestered by cutting the 1,000 or so acres for the corridor itself. Even if all of this went into the atmosphere it would produce 165,000 tons of CO2. If this sounds like a large number, let’s compare it to the CO2 output of a natural gas plant. A natural gas plant producing the 1,200 MW that this line would carry puts out 165,000 tons of CO2 in two weeks, not including the leaked methane. In other words, the power line recovers that lost carbon in under two weeks.

Additionally, CMP is setting aside 4,800 acres of valuable land for permanent conservation and public access as compensation.

In the question 1 debate we hear very little about long-term consequences. Fossil fuels produce 75% of greenhouse gases and supply close to 80% of our energy. To stave off catastrophic climate change we need to replace fossil energy with renewables.This is difficult but doable. One essential part of it is maximum electrification. Yes, we need to conserve and improve efficiencies, but we can’t “efficiency” our way out of 80% of our energy. That means electric cars, heat pumps, electrified factories, etc., for which we will need more transmission lines, not fewer. The energy must all come from low CO2 sources (wind, solar, hydro, nuclear.) While hydro’s total contribution will never increase much, it will play an important role because it is highly controllable while wind and solar are intermittent.

A paper from MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research from May of this year published in the peer-reviewed international journal “Energy Policy” shows that hydro reservoirs in Quebec will play an essential role in the deep decarbonization of the northeast and that two-way power lines like the NECEC are an essential part of it. Hydro functions as a storage facility that addresses the fluctuations from wind and solar. When renewables in New England are very productive, power travels north into Quebec and the hydro is turned down, while at night or in high demand situations, the hydro is turned up. It eliminates the need for fossil energy or batteries to supply peak loads. This is why many fossil energy generators oppose the power line.

Approving question 1 would make virtually impossible any future transmission line development if it crosses public land anywhere, due to requiring a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature.

Hydropower is not the most environmentally friendly form of energy, but it is a low carbon source of energy, and it’s there already. Hydro-Quebec has no plans to increase the amount of land flooded by reservoirs. In fact most of their new build-out is in wind.

There are a number of other “What about this…” arguments against the power line. But keep in mind that all actions have impacts. Inaction also has impacts. Optimal solutions will only be found by appropriate measurement and comparison of those impacts, be they environmental, financial, or social.

Why tie our hands when we have an emergency threatening the planet and need every possible tactic we can find?

Paul Stancioff

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