FORMER QUEBEC premier Robert Bourassa passed away 25 years ago last month. In his 1985 book, Power from the North, he presented a passionate, articulate, and convincing argument to pursue the development of northern Québec’s hydropower resources. He saw US and Canadian northeastern markets as lucrative in the long-term and feared the dangers of the “greenhouse effect.” He believed hydroelectricity would serve the northeast’s energy security much better than nuclear power from an economic standpoint. History has proven him to be right.
What is fascinating about this book by today’s standards is the level of detail that Bourassa included on his conversations and deliberations with governors of the northeast US. He had excellent relations with his regional counterparts. His legacy instructs us to now double down and invest more in regional strategy and planning when it comes to building out the grid to fight climate change.
This month, voters in Maine took part in a statewide referendum on the fate of the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project backed in part by Hydro-Québec. This project and the controversy surrounding it are symbolic of the important debate on the energy future of the US and Canada.
Why are voters in Maine deciding the future of an interregional project which conveys benefits to multiple jurisdictions, and which was to be paid for by the ratepayers of Massachusetts? This is because US states and Canadian provinces do not sufficiently plan their grid interconnections, even though from an electrical point of view we are attached at the hip. Instead, states and provinces engage in unilateral actions, sometimes in complete silos, without considering the bigger picture. Regardless of one’s viewpoint on the NECEC project, this situation illustrates the glaring deficiencies of our current approach – which is not fair to communities, developers, or utilities; is frustrating to state and provincial policymakers; and risks causing environmental havoc.
In the European Union, 42 transmission system operators from 35 nation states have engaged in coordinating the expansion, operation, and reliability of the European electrical grid. On top of this, the Europeans are moving towards a decarbonization agenda that will see the continent reach a net-zero future. Harmonized transmission planning and procurement mechanisms lead to “projects of common interest,” which benefit from uniform treatment under host country laws and access to financing from European Commission institutions. Even the “Brexiteers” of the United Kingdom remained part of the ENTSO-E consortium after leaving the EU. If Iceland and Malta can agree to cooperate on basic issues of technical planning, then so should players like New Brunswick, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Québec.
For a few million dollars a year in funding for a regional secretariat, coordination on the planning of grid development could help lead to tens of billions of dollars of investment in projects such as NECEC, new, local renewable energy production in every province and state (think offshore wind), and good middle-class jobs for working families. To put such a vision in motion, larger interconnections are urgently needed across the region.
For Québec, exporting energy is not an end in and of itself. A common approach with our neighbors would allow us to build bridges to solidify the ties between our interdependent economies, using balanced trade to increase our collective resilience in the face of the challenges climate change will bring to all of us.
As we say in French, “l’union fait la force” [unity is strength].
Bourassa was right to invest time, money, and government resources on cultivating thought leadership and good relations in our corner of the world to promote a cross-border, northeastern vision of our common energy future. We can go a few steps further than Bourassa and create a common market framework that will ensure future transmission projects are not subject to dark money politics and risky and unpredictable procurement processes. Therein lies the imperative to meeting our decarbonization targets.
Jean Charest is the former premier of Québec (2003-2012) and partner at McCarthy Tétrault S.E.N.C.R.L., s.r.l. Pierre-Olivier Pineau is the chair of energy sector management at HEC Montréal. Philip Duguay serves as managing director of the Canada Grid initiative of The Transition Accelerator. The authors are all based in Québec. This is an English-language adaptation of a piece first published in Montreal’s La Presse in French on October 21, 2021, “A new Era of Energy Diplomacy for Québec.”