Hydro-Quebec brings opportunity for Nova Scotia energy

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Like you, I was taken aback earlier by the news that a deal had been struck whereby Hydro-Quebec would more or less take over NB Power. What did it mean, especially for Nova Scotia? Having thought it over, I've found the hidden message: If the deal goes through, offering Quebec's ample hydro power right next door, take it.

We'd be fools not to. It would be a marvellous thing that would save us a great deal of trouble. Depending on the amount, it would allow us to slow down on the option of "big wind and biomass" that we have chosen to deliver 25 per cent of our power by 2015, that's getting more troublesome all the time and that may not work even under the most optimistic scenario.

When the news hit about Hydro-Quebec, the first reaction -- including my own -- was one of suspicion at the motives of this bureaucratic behemoth. There was even a brief rumour that it was going to try to buy out Nova Scotia Power as well.

When opposition arose in New Brunswick, the worst seemed confirmed: A few days after Christmas, Quebec's energy minister, Nathalie Normandeau, said it was a done deal and that was that. A day later, however, both she and Premier Jean Charest rushed to state that the deal was still being negotiated. Hydro-Quebec was being flexible.

It's been noted many times in the past that it's unfortunate for the Canadian federation that the benefits of Quebec's power are all flowing into the U.S. and little or none east and west, the result mainly of French-English suspicions. It might be useful, on the constitutional as well as on the energy level, for the Nova Scotia government to make its approach now to see what there is to be had in the event that New Brunswick and Hydro-Quebec do come to terms.

Instead of seeing Hydro-Quebec as a bogeyman, a wise course would be to open negotiations in view of what benefit there might be for us. P.E.I. jumped on the opportunity immediately, and U.S. states buy what is essentially premium, non-polluting power at favourable rates. Why not us?

What this would allow us to do, at the very least, is turn big biomass into moderate biomass and reconsider the increasingly dubious benefits of mega-windpower. With big biomass, it's not clear at all, everything considered, that it's better than burning coal as far as the environment and its ecology are concerned. The primary benefit is jobs. It would be useful if we were upfront about that.

As for wind, worldwide it's a gold rush with no one asking whether there's any gold (and with very few jobs, except for where they manufacture the turbines). I'll get back to that in a later column.

Meanwhile, the way I understand the fuzzy thinking regarding wind, and tidal power as well, is that we'll produce vast amounts of it, keeping only what we can, because it's intermittent, and we'll wheel the surplus to the U.S. This reminds me of the 1970s and '80s, when we were going to be an energy superpower, thanks to coal, nuclear and tidal power, and drive the stuff to the U.S. through New Brunswick -- not having bothered to ask New Brunswick.

We still haven't asked. And that province is neither interested nor enthusiastic about someone else running a power line through, especially if the New Brunswick government has to take political flak from environmentalists or anyone else. It would be within its rights to charge whatever the traffic will bear for such a line.

Further, if we're talking about a power line to carry on-and-off power, these are less profitable than those humming with full-time power. Will it pay? And, finally, do we know if there's a market in the U.S. for interruptible power? Or are we, once again, entertaining fantasies?

Finally, we're suspicious of Hydro-Quebec because of the ongoing tiff with Newfoundland and Labrador, and we tend to side with Newfoundland. Yet a Lower Churchill hydro project would take some 15 years to deliver, even if it started now. This is an issue for another day. Meanwhile, Newfoundland, with its oil, will soon be in better shape than us. Plus, it did make one deal not long ago to wheel some power through Quebec. So let's not keep our shorts in a knot over than one.

The Dalhousie group under David Wheeler reviewing Nova Scotia's energy policy put out a preliminary report during the holidays. One of its cogent observations is that we know nothing for sure about the energy future and, above all, policy must remain flexible. Grabbing at this opportunity, if it's available, would be a good start.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County.

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