BOSTON—New England’s most populous states are looking to tap Canadian dams and rivers for more of their electricity, a change that officials say would help cut greenhouse-gas emissions and help keep some of the nation’s highest power prices in check.
Canada, with plenty of water and just 35 million people, gets 63% of its power supply from hydroelectric dams, and is adding more with an eye on exports. Getting that power to New England is no easy task—one power-line proposal in New Hampshire has drawn criticism from locals—but policy makers in the region have long been tantalized by the prospect of plentiful, cheap Canadian power.
Massachusetts and Connecticut, home to most of New England’s population and power demand, could add enough new hydropower to supply millions of people through efforts under way in each state.Entergy Corp. threw those efforts into sharp relief Tuesday when itannounced plans to shut its Pilgrim nuclear plant in Massachusettsby mid-2019 due to high operating costs and poor market conditions.
The shutdown “not only poses a potential energy shortage, but also highlights the need for clean, reliable, affordable energy proposals,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a first-term Republican, said in a statement. He cited a need for hydropower and renewable resources like wind and solar power.
The governor earlier this year proposed legislation to allow utilities to seek up to 2,400 megawatts of hydropower under contracts running as long as 25 years. One megawatt can power 750 to 1,000 New England homes, according to the region’s power grid operator. Mr. Baker’s proposal is one of several energy-related bills that are hot topics in the Massachusetts legislature, including calls to expand solar-power incentives and tap offshore wind development.
New England has become more reliant on natural-gas-fired power plants as older plants using oil and coal retire. But the region facesnatural-gas supply constraints in the winter, when the fuel is also in high demand for home heating, which has drawn blame for boosting consumers’ power costs.
On average through July, residential power in New England this year cost about 20 cents per kilowatt-hour—higher than any other region in the contiguous U.S., according to the Energy Information Administration.
Connecticut could also bring in Canadian hydropower through a joint request for clean-energy proposals planned this fall with Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Connecticut and Massachusetts both mandate steep cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. Building enough big clean-energy facilities in the congested states to help meet that demand would be tough. But “you have this huge fleet of hydroelectric facilities in Quebec,” said Doug Giuffre, a director at IHS Energy.
New England’s existing power lines from Canada can’t support the large-scale imports policy makers want. As a result, utilities and other developers have at least five active proposals to build costly, high-capacity electric lines through Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. Most would carry wind and hydropower.
One proposal for a 192-mile line planned through New Hampshire to tap 1,000 megawatts from government utility Hydro-Quebec has gotten a frosty reception from locals. “It’s important that we maintain our pristine views” for tourism and recreation, said Steve Ellis, a retired insurance executive who chairs the board of selectmen in Pittsburg, a town of about 970 at New Hampshire’s northern tip.
Project backer Eversource Energy, a large utility in New England, recently agreed to bury 60 miles to assuage concerns, but some environmental groups and locals want it all underground.
Eversource has said burying the power line completely is far too expensive for a project whose costs already exceed $1.4 billion. The current plan needs both state and federal approval to move ahead.
Some competing proposals call for power lines to be draped through Lake Champlain or the Gulf of Maine, since snaking them through water is less expensive.
The companies running New England’s existing power plants have objected to major hydro imports. An industry trade group said the Massachusetts plan for such imports would disrupt a competitive market while boosting prices, though utilities backing hydro imports have challenged the math.
Environmental groups, for their part, are leery of relying on dams so heavily that wind and solar power get shunted aside. Another Massachusetts bill from state Sen. Benjamin Downing, a Democrat who co-chairs the state’s joint committee on telecommunications, utilities and energy, would boost hydropower while also increasing requirements for utilities to add these other sources. “It’s not a question of if hydro plays a role in the region, it’s a question of how,” Mr. Downing said.