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New York eyes more energy from Canada's mega-dams

This story is the second part of a seriesfollowing New York's power lines to Canada.  You can read the second part here.

Say you're a big state, in need of a lot of electric power. Specifically, you're the fifth largest power consumer in the nation.

And let's also say you have a newfound zeal for shutting down a large nuclear facility, one that's unsettlingly close to a major city (for these purposes we'll call it "Indian Point").

In this scenario, if your northern neighbor swooped in with an offer to provide you with hydroelectric power, produced by massive dams, you'd say yes - right?

OK, you guessed it, this scenario is very, very real for New York State.

There's a plan under consideration right now that would help with these problems.  It involves sinking a massive electric cable into the Hudson River, to carry power from Canada, all the way to downstate consumers. The Champlain Hudson Power Express, as it's called, is sparking interest for its potential to provide renewable energy, and to relieve traffic on the highways of the electric grid.

But as with anything power - it's not without controversy.

A fraught trade route

The line would join a series of power lines already crisscrossing the border, right by Jackie Harvey's house.

Harvey lives in Ft. Covington, N.Y., where the lines from Canada come through. Back in 1976 she was part of a movement to protest those lines.

She even remembers standing outside the Franklin County Jail on a sub-zero night, just before Christmas, singing carols to three comrades who had been arrested for protesting the development, hoping that their good cheer would waft through the jail's windows.

"Truly, none of us had ever protested before for anything," says Harvey.

But the specter of a line of giant transmission towers running through the fields of their rural township catalyzed Harvey's group to oppose the line bringing hydroelectric power from Quebec.

Ultimately, the protesters failed. Today, the tall pylons that straddle Fort Covington flare up in a lightning storm.  If you take a florescent bulb outside, the line's electromagnetic field makes it glow.

Conflicts about transmission nowadays are a little more underground - literally.  The Champlain Hudson line won't be running through people's farms; it would run through a river. 

But the commodity traveling the line itself is still controversial.

Traffic jams on the power lines

Canadian hydroelectric powered almost five percent of New York's homes, jobs, and computer screens in 2010. That power represents almost half-a-trillion dollars, depending on whether you use Canadian or American math.

And what prevents New York from importing more Canadian energy today isn't supply; it's inadequate transmission.

Congressman Tom Reed signed onto a letter of support for the Champlain Hudson line this summer.

"It's a huge line, and it's going to help a lot with the downstate area," he explained after a town hall meeting in Phelps, a small town about halfway between Syracuse and Rochester.

The line won't go through Reed's district, but he still feels strongly about. He explains that back in his days as a lawyer, he did work for a rural electric co-op, and saw firsthand just how expensive it can be to buy power on the open market.

In one case, the co-op's demand exceeded its regular power contracts for fifteen minutes. Covering that gap cost $200,000.

"That was a tremendous amount of cash," Reed says.

Reed thinks the line, which would bring in Canadian hydropower, could help ease the bumps in the road for the power market. He thinks it's a win. The fact that it's renewable energy is just icing on the cake for the freshman Republican representative.

The line has won added support as a potential replacement for power generated by the unpopular Indian Point nuclear facility. Governor Andrew Cuomo and others have said the reactors in Westchester pose an unreasonable safety threat.

Concerns for New York businesses

But plans to boost Canadian hydroelectric imports draw fire from unexpected quarters. A number of New York's green companies don't like the prospect of boosting imports from Canada's mega-dams.

For one, from the standpoint of a solar panel start-up, a lot of cheap hydropower looks like competition.

"We really feel New York should be putting their dollars into resources that are home-grown, here in New York State," says Carol Murphy, who works with solar and wind companies as head of what's essentially the Empire State's "green tech" Chamber of Commerce, the Alliance for Clean Energy New York.

Murphy's biggest concern is whether New York State will eventually decide to count Canadian hydro towards its renewable energy quota. New York's "Renewable Portfolio Standard" remains on the books through 2015.

"If you were to pit Canadian hydro in direct competition with emerging technologies, says Murphy, "you would pretty much wipe out any investment [in other renewables]."

And then there's opposition from the quarters you would expect: people who would be directly affected by construction of the dams that would feed power into the Champlain Hudson line. They're spoiling for a fight with NALCOR, the provincial power authority of Newfoundland & Labrador, which  has plans to generate more power to ship south.

Tomorrow we'll travel to that northern Atlantic province, to check out the view from the other side of the border.

Former WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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