New York and Québec: The HydroPower Couple

Three powerhouse women in energy came together this September afternoon during Climate Week NYC for a fascinating and inspiring fireside chat about the future for New York, Québec and hydropower. Catherine Loubier, Québec Delegate General in New York introduced Academic Director and Clinical Professor at NYU’s SPS Center for Global Affairs, Dr. Carolyn Kissane and Hydro-Québec’s new CEO, Sophie Brochu.

Starting the conversation, Dr. Kissane noted that “hydropower is recognized as renewable, considered very important for many regions of world, as a source of energy – it is part of the conversation here – but not without its downsides.” She then asked, “how does Canadian hydropower impact indigenous community displacement and the ecosystem damage that results from hydropower projects?”

Mme. Brochu replied “no energy source is perfect; each one has its merit and inconveniences. At the start [the choice for hydropower] was made for economic, not environmental reason.”

She continued, “most of Québec’s population lives along the St. Lawrence river and the Indigenous tribes live in the northern part of this territory. There was never “displacement of population.” We always had an agreement that if they wanted to move, we would help them move. These communities have been there a long time & a conversation is happening because they want to take part. We incorporate their comments into the projects for development. Are we perfect? No, we’re not. Are we way better than we were decades ago? That is for sure. Every single day we talk to the indigenous tribes.”

“On the impact of the reservoir: electricity is a manufactured product – specifically it uses another form of energy to be produced.” She went on to explain that in the case of dams, there are emissions during construction of dams, but studies show that the rates have declined to pre-construction levels.

As for the future of Hydro-Québec, Mme. Brochu said that they are ready to help their neighbors with their energy needs. “We want to be enablers. The more you build intermittent energy you have, the more you need a backup. We want to be storage for you, your battery. If not, if you don’t have backup, you’ll be doing what Germany lived – building wind up and up and having fossil fuels to back it up.”

Dr Kissane, furthered this point, saying that Norway serves as the battery for Europe, especially Denmark and Germany, and that now in New York, with the Indian Point nuclear power plant closing early, and the rare agreement between NYC Major DeBlasio and New York’s governor Cuomo, asking “now that there is a consensus that hydropower is critical for NY energy system, how is that going to happen, what will it mean for New York & Québec?”

Mme. Brochu responded “WE NEED A LINE. We need to make the move and build that line together. Obviously, the connection we are having will vary through time. Our capacity on this side of the border is to enable you. They are right, but we need to put our starter blocks to green recovery to COVID, to the economy. Let’s move! We have so much brain on your side of the border & we have capacity. Business, Energy, Environment Together = Let’s Go!”

Dr Kissane asked if New York would have to build more dams for such a project, to which Mme. Brochu said that the current reservoir in Québec is already sufficient and that the biggest obstacle is if we take too much time.

“We need to find a way the environmental attributes of hydropower are better recognized in the US. New Yorkers are trying to put together a bouquet of renewable energies. They need to view hydropower in the right way: as affordable renewable energy. We can’t match the price of very low fossil fuels, but we can compare hydropower to any renewable cost.”

When asked about Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) issues, Mme. Brochu said “one challenge in reducing GHGs is decarbonizing the electricity system. Québec is 99% there already due to geography. We want to be a catalyst, starting from that standpoint, with what can we do as an entity to electricity, transport, very complex societal issues, routes with taxation and behavior change. What if a student had a card that allowed them to rent an electric car, a subway, an electric bike? Interconnection is biggest challenge of the energy transition.”

She continued, “hydrogen has been the topic for a long time. Given the challenges, we have the whole scientific research, we believe that Québec has a role to play in development of the electrolyzers for water production of green hydrogen. It’s a means to something else, not just an end product. We believe we have a lot to share on both sides.  There is an MIT study that says we can’t view ourselves as independent. We need to view the systems in the Northeast altogether – and then slice the pie.”

To conclude, Dr. Kissane asked Hydro-Québec’s CEO to describe her vision for the next 10-15 years. She replied, “I drink by the firehose, I’m still a rookie. My biggest driver to join Hydro Québec: I am an economist and educator, and a fundamental believer that energy is the blood of the economy, that infrastructure & energy are both precious and finances are under constraint. If there was a time for humanity to come together and use comparative advantage it is now.  We cannot act alone in our own parochial way. Nobody in this part of the continent can do it alone. We owe it to our citizens – to build a community of communities to pull up and rise up to that challenge.  We can do that here in Québec and New York. That’s the flag in the moon.  To have universities talk to one another, we just need to get going!!”

Many thanks to NYU SPS Center for Global Affairs, Québec Delegate General, and Hydro-Québec for an empowering afternoon.

About Climate Week NYC: Climate Week NYC coincides with the United Nations 75th Meeting of the General Assembly – all of which are online, due to COVID 19, for the first time in the UN’s history. Experts from the global scientific, indigenous, political, activist and corporate communities will address topics ranging from the green energy transition and the potential impacts it could have on global health, including zoonotic diseases, climate justice through a green recovery in BIPOC communities, food security, building green cities, and how to finance it all now and through a circular economy. The festival will also look at decarbonization, deforestation, the impacts of mega fires and permafrost melt, alternative fuels and power, and clean tech as well as US and international policy, the incredible youth movement, and sustainable tourism.

Sally Barr