Why Quebec is not the answer to NS Power’s coal addiction


NS Power and NB Power have agreed to do something sensible. They will dispatch their thermal generating plants jointly, which means the two utilities will be able to use the cheapest available electricity sources in their combined fleets at any given time. They expect savings of $20 million annually.

This good news on the electricity front produced an email query from longtime energy gadfly Peggy Cameron to Tim Bousquet of the Halifax Examiner:

If NSP can collaborate on grid interconnection with NB Power why aren’t we buying electricity from HydroQuebec and shutting down coal-fired generating plants?

It’s a good question with a perfectly reasonable answer. The transmission line that connects Amherst NS and Moncton NB is very small. The west-to-east transmission line that brings electricity to Moncton and PEI is bigger, but full to capacity.

So the combination of limited capacity east of Moncton and congestion west of Moncton means there is no transmission capacity available to bring significant quantities of electricity from Quebec to NS. To buy power from Quebec, ratepayers in NS would have to pay for construction of a massive transmission line through two other provinces.

Once built, such a transmission line would make NS Power a captive customer of Hydro Quebec. As Joey Smallwood discovered at Churchill Falls, that is a dreadful position to find yourself in.

We tend to blame Quebec for this, but Ottawa is just as much the culprit. When Hydro Quebec exports power to the United States, US law requires that it must also agree to let other power producers transmit (or “wheel”) power through its territory to US customers.

Canadian law imposes no such requirement. Ottawa has never had the gumption to force Quebec, or any other province, to permit wheeling of electricity through its territory. We have free trade for electricity with New England, but not with Quebec.

That’s why buying Labrador power via the Maritime Link was a much better deal for NS Power customers, because the two parties negotiated firm longterm prices and amounts in advance. Even after the deal expires, we will be in a strong position to negotiate reasonable prices, because any power Nalcor sells will have to come through NS.

Thousands more megawatts of hydro power await development in Labrador. Future generations of Nova Scotians will thank their ancestors for having had the wisdom to open a route for that power to our province.

Emera and Nalcor plan to sell some Muskrat Falls Power to New England. This will flow, east to west, through that congested transmission line that serves Moncton. Ironically, if a transmission line is full of west-to-east traffic, and you introduce more electricity in the east-to-west direction, this frees up an equal amount of capacity in the previously congested east-to west direction.*

So the completion of the Maritime Link, and resulting electricity sales to New England, could actually create opportunities to buy Quebec power on the spot market when the price is advantageous.

All this is a illustrates the technical, logistical, marketing, and political complications that beset electrical utility policy. And as H. L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple—and wrong.”

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* This is also why the hilarious claim by Keith Cronkhite, NB Power VP of business development, that the energy swaps will exclude nuclear power from Point Lepreau, is pure, unmitigated bullshit.