Québec Hydropower for New York's Clean Energy?
image credit: Hydro-Quebec
- Aug 23, 2019 1:00 pm GMT
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New York State has mandated the most ambitious climate policy in the U.S. (NYSERDA, 2019b). The recently executed Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) requires New York to achieve a carbon-free electricity system by 2040 and reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero by 2050 (NYSERDA, 2019b). Decarbonization of the electric grid (19% of GHG emissions) is a priority as the technology pathways are known. In order to meet the deep decarbonization goals, New York City (NYC) looking add a 1,000 MW transmission line to bring hydropower from Québec. All the city government buildings would potentially be powered with Québec hydropower (NYC, 2019).
However, some environmentalists are opposing Canadian hydropower for New York, citing carbon emissions and mercury release, loss of local jobs, and the possibility of crowding out local renewable generation (Eadie, 2015; Kurtz, Burkhardt, & Pisha, 2018). Some are loath to encourage the construction of new dams, which they see as destructive projects that drain rivers and disrupt ecosystems (Massachusetts Sierra Club, n.d.; Roth, 2019).
I evaluated the clean energy needs of downstate New York, the life-cycle climate impact of competing electricity generation technologies, and potential emission profiles under various grid scenarios to answer this question. Finally, I consider the logic of transmitting hydropower from Québec to New York based on the hydrological endowments of Canada vs. the U.S.
New York State: Tale of Two Grids
Figure 1.1. NY’s clean ‘upstate’ (light blue) and dirty ‘downstate’ (dark blue) grids (NYISO, 2019)
Downstate New York (DNY), including the Capital Region, Hudson Valley, NYC, and Long Island, has a higher pollution electric grid than upstate (Figure 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5; Table 1). DNY’s GHG intensity is 441 grams of CO2 per kWh vs. 264 for the state, and 80 for upstate. Cheap natural gas-powered electricity is crowding out all other sources as coal declines (NYISO, 2019), and is a complementary dispatchable counterpart to variable renewable generation (Appendix A).
Figure 1.2. New York Electricity Generation and Natural Gas Infrastructure
Figure 1.3. Downstate New York Electricity Generation and Natural Gas Infrastructure
Figure 1.4. New York City Electricity Generation and Natural Gas Infrastructure
Figure 1.5. Electricity generation by type - Upstate vs. Downstate (NYISO, 2019)
Table 1. New York electricity generation mix and emissions breakdown for 2018, by region. Sources: NYISO (2019), CIRAIG (2014), and author’s calculations assuming ‘Dual Fuel’ plants burn natural gas, ‘Other’ has the same emissions as solar, and ‘Hydro Pumped Storage’ the same emissions as Hydro.
In 2017, New York reached a deal to close Indian Point nuclear power plant over 2020-2021 (Indianpoint, 2017; Riverkeeper, 2017), responsible for 80% of downstate clean energy generation (Table 1). Due to population density downstate, much of New York’s existing and proposed renewable energy capabilities are upstate, and the state’s transmission lines are aging (NYISO, 2019). This situation questions how DNY will reach the goals of the CLCPA.
Hydro-Québec (HQ) is the hydro power generator owned by Canada’s provincial government of Québec. HQ generates electricity using both types of large hydroelectric plants, ‘run-of-river’ (where a generating station is fed directly by a river with little or no water storage) and ‘reservoir’ (where the generating station gets water from a dammed artificial lake). Reservoir-type plants have worse environmental profiles, including high GHG emissions (Figure 2.1). HQ’s 64 hydroelectric stations have an installed capacity of 37 GW, of which 63% is reservoir-based.
Figure 2.1. Comparison of life-cycle GHG emissions by electricity generation type (CIRAIG, 2014) * results standardized into grams of CO2-equivalent per kilowatthour
In order to understand the impacts of energy generation options, HQ commissioned the International Reference Centre for the Life Cycle of Products, Processes and Services (CIRAIG), to conduct a comparative analysis in 2014. The group conducted a life-cycle assessment for generation under the rigors of ISO 14040 series of standards (ISO, 2007). CIRAIG evaluated seven environmental impact indicators comparing the results of a literature survey (over 60 reports published since 2007) with primary data from HQ’s hydroelectric fleet for the year 2012. The study found HQ’s hydropower to be among the best on almost all metrics on a per kilowatthour-basis.
Run-of-river hydropower is best on the climate change indicator, and reservoir hydropower (though 3x worse than run-of-river) is nearly 4x better than solar photovoltaic, and at par with wind (Figure 2). CIRAIG's findings (Figure 2.1) are consistent with IPCC’s findings in 2011 (Ottmar Edenhofer, Ramón Pichs Madruga, Youba Sokona [and] Technical Support Unit Working Group Iii, & Potsdam Institute For Climate Impact Research, 2011, Figure 9.8; Figure 2.2). Unlike other renewables sources like solar and wind, hydropower can be dispatched on-demand. Of dispachable electricity sources, HQ’s blended climate impact of the latest project Romaine (16 g CO2/kWh) is one-40th that of natural gas.
Figure 2.2: Life-cycle GHG emissions by electric generation technology (Ottmar Edenhofer et al., 2011)
With no combustion during electric generation, most emissions from hydropower come from the construction phase (cement, haulage). However, plant matter in flooded reservoirs decompose in oxygen-poor water into methane, a greenhouse gas with 32x the global warming potential as CO2 on a 100-year time-scale (US EPA, 2016). CIRAIG found that HQ’s reservoirs emit much lower methane vs. hydro impoundments in warm tropical climates. Electricity from dams in Amazonia may generate more than 2,600 g CO2/kWh, ~3x that of coal (Fearnside, 2015; International Rivers, 2008).
In Québec’s northern environments, vegetation is sparse (CIRAIG, 2014). The remote regions have low agricultural runoff, reducing nutrients and organic matter in the reservoirs. Cold water contains more dissolved oxygen than warm water, leading to the formation of more CO2 vs. methane. Emissions from reservoirs rise after impoundment, peak after 2-4 years and return to the levels of neighboring lakes and rivers within the next 5-10 years. Since hydro plants can generate electricity for 80-100 years, the per-unit emissions reduce with time.
Champlain-Hudson Power Express
Champlain Hudson Power Express (CHPE) is a permitted $3 billion, 333-mile, high-voltage direct-current transmission line for 1,000 megawatts (MW) from the Québec border to New York City. The developers have recently proposed to increase CHPE’s capacity with 250 MW of bidirectional capacity (Transmission Developers Inc, 2019). This flexibility would enable New York to ship any excess renewable generation from variable sources for storage in hydro dams. Construction is to start in 2020, enabling operations to commence in 2024.
To mitigate the impacts of high voltage cables under riverine ecosystems of Haverstraw Bay, CHPE changed the route in a 2012 settlement with Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson (Hellauer, 2018). The route will still have submarine portions, including under Lake Champlain and the Hudson River between Albany and Manhattan (Transmission Developers Inc, n.d.). Any transmission line from upstate NY (for Québec hydropower or upstate renewables) to downstate will have associated environmental impacts.
Beyond CHPE, New York State Independent System Operator (NYISO) has solicited two transmission system upgrades from central to eastern NY (350+ MW), and from the Albany area through the Hudson Valley region (900+ MW) to transmit upstate renewables (solar, wind, and hydro) downstate (NYISO, 2019). These are expected to be operational by 2023.
Bulk electricity demand is expected to decline due to the growth of “behind-the-meter” distributed energy resources (NYISO, 2019). However, overall demand could rise as other parts of the economy electrifies to cut fossil fuel use (transportation, residential, industrial, etc.), countered by efficiency gains. The below exercise assumes a flat demand scenario for DNY and assesses the various grid configurations based on NYISO’s downstate interconnection queue as of March 1, 2019 (Table 2). HQ’s contribution is conservatively modeled at 1,000 MW, despite the proposal to expand this by 25%.
Table 2. DNY 2018 generation, emissions, queue potential, maximum available, and renewable only
Electricity generation = capacity factor x installed nameplate capacity x time.
Quebec Hydro’s capacity factor is of the Romaine complex, all others as realized in 2018.
Table 3. Generation & emission profiles and overall GHG intensity of various grid configurations
* ½ DNY Renewables: gas fills the gap between DNY renewables (existing + ½ of queue) and demand
* DNY Renews+Qb: gas fills the gap between DNY renewables (existing + queue)-plus-HQ and demand
* DNY Renews+Qb+Up: prorated upstate renewables from 350MW & 900MW lines added to the above
* Only NY Renews: All New York renewable resources that can get downstate, but no HQ
Table 3 demonstrates that removing HQ from the grid mix (headings with dark background) materially weakens downstate climate goals, with emissions even increasing vs. 2018 in one scenario. While HQ’s hydro projects are already built, proposed renewable projects have lower odds of realization due to economics and community opposition (NYLCVEF, 2019). The next iteration of this study should risk weigh all projects along various time periods.
Achieving 100% emissions neutrality by 2040 will be a herculean task for New York. When signing CLCPA into law, Governor Cuomo proclaimed that “cries for a new green movement are hollow political rhetoric if not combined with aggressive goals and a realistic plan on how to achieve them” (NYSERDA, 2019b). Unlike variable renewables, hydropower is a low-pollution dispatchable electricity source (Figure 2) able to counter growing natural gas dominance (Appendix A). While extending the life existing hydro resources like the Niagara plant (UtilityDive, 2019), securing hydropower from Québec is a sound environmental policy. To evaluate the social impact, NYC is engaging with Québec’s indigenous groups directly during procurement due diligence (Anhoury, 2019).
Figure 3. Hydro endowment of Canada vs. the U.S. (Food and Agriculture Organization, n.d.). Québec’s renewable water resource per capita is 13.7x that of the U.S. (Boyer, 2008)
Canada, especially Québec, has a high hydro endowment compared to the U.S. (Figure 3). E.g. Canada’s per-capita dam capita is 10x that of the U.S. Low-emission hydro electricity from Québec feeding clean-energy-hungry DNY is a “virtual water trade” (water footprint network, n.d.). This practice allows the collective water resource to be utilized efficiently, relieving pressure from the region with relative scarcity. As the energy-climate-water nexus becomes more strained, trade should be part of the solution, rather than isolationism.
Figure 4. New York bulk electricity capacity mix evolution (NYISO, 2019)
The portion of New York’s generating capability from natural gas and dual-fuel facilities grew from 47% in 2000 to 59% in 2019, as coal generation declined from 11% to 1%. Wind power – virtually non-existent in 2000 – grew to nearly 4.5% of New York State’s generating capability in 2019 (NYISO, 2019).
Figure 5. Levelized cost of electricity (United States) for 1H2018 (BNEF, n.d.)
The levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) is a holistic cost assessment of a generation source levelized over the lifetime of the asset. The LCOE of variable renewable generation like solar (PV) and wind -plus- the associated electric storage cost far exceeds the cost of on-demand generation from natural gas (combined heat and power ‘CHP’ and combined cycle gas turbine ‘CCGT’), per Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF, n.d.)
Figure 6. Levelized cost of electricity for wind-plus storage vs. coal and combined cycle gas turbine
BNEF models steep declines in energy storage -plus- renewable generation costs over the next few decades to make coal-based electricity uneconomic, but not natural gas (CCGT).
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