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Drought in the north  Canada imports more US energy

Drought in the north Canada imports more US energy

(Radisson, Quebec) In February, the United States did what it had not done in a long time: it exported more electricity to Canada than it imported. Then, in March, US electricity exports to Canada increased again, to a level not seen since at least 2010.

The increase in electricity flows north is worrying for North America: demand for energy is rising everywhere, but electricity production – in Canada, from giant hydroelectric dams – and the capacity of the road to meet demand are being tested.

These hydroelectric stations have recently been forced to reduce their production due to lack of rain and snow. A temporary condition, many experts say. But some are concerned: Climate change, driven by the 2023 wildfires, could reduce the reliability of rainfall and snowfall forecasting models.

“You have to be humble in the face of extreme weather,” says Chris O'Reilly, CEO of BC Hydro, which operates hydroelectric dams in British Columbia. “In some years there is more water, in others less. During periods of decline, as is the case now, it is normal to import, and we expect that to be the case again this year.”

The United States and Canada have long been interconnected: Canadian electricity demand peaks in the winter, with heating; The American peak occurs during the summer with air conditioning.

Canada's abundant hydropower has been key to this trade, providing affordable renewable energy to California, Oregon, Washington, New York and New England.

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But this balance is threatened. In many states, energy demand increases sharply in both summer and winter. According to some experts, winter demand in the United States will exceed summer demand by 2050.

Photography by Ruth Fremson, The New York Times

The James Bay complex has enabled Hydro-Québec to become a major supplier to New York State and New England. But a winter with little snow has forced Hydro-Quebec and other Canadian utilities to import more American electricity.

At the same time, grids increasingly rely on intermittent energy sources such as sun and wind. Major hydropower plants in California – most notably Hoover Dam – and Canada must now contend with falling water levels.

“We're seeing real climate changes and their impact on hydropower generation is being revealed in real time, virtually across North America,” says Robert McCullough of McCullough Research in Portland, Oregon, which advises Canadian electricity clients. Since the 1980s.

Active transformation

In addition, individuals and businesses are adopting heat pumps as well as electric vehicles and industrial equipment, moving away from fossil fuels. This boosts demand for electricity, as well as the proliferation of data centers.

The Biden administration and some states are working to build new U.S. power lines. But experts suggest the United States should also add lines to Canada. So California's solar farms could power Canada when its dams are short of water, and Canada could send more electricity south when water levels are high.

Photography by Ruth Fremson, The New York Times

The Robert-Bourassa power station, built by Hydro-Québec, is located on the Grande Rivière, close to the village of Radisson.

“Most models show that a more interconnected grid is a better grid,” notes Shelley Welton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who co-signed a recent report on power grid reliability. “In my opinion, North American-wide interconnection is an asset. You have to plan for different scenarios and plan for the long term.”

Surrounded by pine and spruce trees in northern Quebec, the Robert-Bourassa hydroelectric power station embodies the promises and challenges of renewable energy production.

This power plant and its little sister La Grande-2-A, built by Hydro-Québec on the Grande Rivière, can produce more electricity than the largest power plant in the United States, Grand Coulee Dam, on the Columbia River, in 2013 in Washington state.

Photography by Ruth Fremson, The New York Times

One of the tunnels of the Robert Bourassa power station, formerly known as LG-2

The James Bay complex has allowed Hydro-Québec to become a major supplier to New York State and New England. However, a lower-than-normal amount of snow has forced Hydro-Quebec and other Canadian utilities to import more U.S. electricity in recent months.

“Conditions look abnormally dry,” says Gilbert Bennett, president of Water Power Canada, a non-profit organization representing the hydropower sector. “Annual changes are increasing.”

Hydro-Québec notes similar periods in 2004 and 2014, and estimates that the current drought is coming to an end: its models predict a 6 to 8% increase in precipitation in eastern Canada over the next 25 years.

According to Serge Abergel, chief operating officer of the US subsidiary Hydro-Québec Energy Services, Canada's recent use of US electricity has made it possible to save water in hydropower plants. He adds that modernizing and improving networks and adding renewable resources will allow the two countries to complement each other.

“Transformation also creates opportunities, and we are working to improve these resources,” emphasizes Mr. Abergel.

In general, the United States prefers to import more electricity from Canada. It is much cheaper. Residential customers at Hydro Quebec pay about $69 per 1,000 kilowatt hours of energy, compared with $325 in New York state and $380 on average in New England, Abergel said.

Hydro-Québec's costs are low: its power plants were built and paid for long ago. Canadian hydropower is twice as expensive for people in Massachusetts as it is for people in Quebec, according to an analysis by McCullough Research.

Hydro-Québec is building new power lines. It is involved in the Champlain Hudson Power Express project, which is expected to be completed in mid-2026. This $6 billion, approximately 550-kilometre-long transmission line will connect a substation in La Prairie with a transfer station located in the Astoria district of New York. This line will be powerful enough to power more than a million New York homes.

“If we want rapid transit, we need more transportation,” Mr. Abergel said. But “we don't encourage anyone to find solutions, we do things gradually.”

According to Mr. Abergel, Hydro-Quebec will fulfill all its obligations to New York and other states despite the drought, because it can conserve water by reducing the amount of electricity produced by its power plants and importing more energy from the United States. This will ensure the company always has enough water to export power during peak demand in New York and New England.

But some energy experts are less optimistic. Mr McCullough says he fears global warming will hit reservoirs so hard, that it will no longer be possible to keep enough water in reserve to cope with a very long drought.

He added: “Every episode like this makes us nervous.”

This article was first published in The New York Times.

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