In 2010, Vermont lawmakers lifted the cap on hydropower and became one of the only states that allows utilities to meet their renewable energy requirements with electricity generated by large-scale hydropower. About 62 percent of the electricity we use here in Vermont now comes from hydropower and about half of that is from Hydro Quebec’s mega-dams.
While this energy is technically “renewable” in the sense that it relies on a fuel source that replenishes itself in a short time period, it definitely isn’t clean.
As the Vermont Climate Council formulates the climate action plan that will shape our state’s energy system going forward, it must assess the true environmental and humanitarian effects of large-scale hydropower and reconsider Vermont’s reliance on imported hydro.
Massive hydropower projects can have a very large carbon and methane footprint. Unlike many of the smaller run-of-the-river hydro projects located in Vermont, Hydro Quebec’s dams store and release water when power is needed. They often flood and drain hundreds of square miles of forested land to store and release the water that generates electricity. As trees and vegetation that usually sequester carbon decompose under water, their stored carbon is released — some as CO2, but mostly as methane. Methane, although not as long lasting as CO2, is a far more potent greenhouse gas.
Emissions can vary a lot depending on the age of the dam and the amount of decomposing vegetation, but recent research shows that Canadian large-scale hydro projects have an ongoing carbon footprint which is approximately 40 percent that of electricity generated by burning natural gas. These emissions do not include the carbon footprint of dam construction. Solar and wind, on the other hand, have a carbon footprint of 4 — 8 percent of natural gas, even when including the carbon footprint of construction. In other words, solar and wind power are at least five times cleaner than large-scale Canadian hydro. We simply can’t afford to pretend that large-scale hydropower will mitigate the effects of climate change when we have better, local options that truly will.
Since more than 30 percent of Vermont’s electricity comes from Hydro Quebec, it would be reasonable to expect Hydro Quebec greenhouse gas emissions to be included in the state’s greenhouse gas inventory.
Unfortunately, they are not. In the most recent state report, regulators explain that they consider “wind, solar, hydropower and nuclear” as equal, “zero emissions” technologies. This is misleading at best, outright deceptive at worst.
Because of the state’s failure to account for large-scale hydro’s emissions, Vermont’s electricity sector appears cleaner than it actually is. As utilities purchase huge amounts of electricity from Hydro Quebec, those emissions are simply not being counted.
Unfortunately, this failure to provide an accurate accounting of environmental harms caused by Hydro Quebec extends beyond greenhouse gas emissions to violations of Indigenous land sovereignty. Hydro Quebec operates more than 550 dams and dikes which flood more than 6,000 square miles of territory. Thirty-six percent of the total hydroelectric power installed by Hydro Quebec was built on First Nation’s land, without compensation or consent. These flooded rivers have decimated hunting and fishing traditions, forced the relocation of entire villages, and caused dangerously high levels of mercury exposure.
When the land in these northern regions is flooded, microbes transform naturally occurring mercury into the neurotoxin methylmercury. A recent Harvard study found over 90 percent of potential new Canadian hydroelectric projects are likely to increase concentrations of methylmercury in food webs near indigenous communities. The study showed that flooding by these hydro projects doubled the risk of methylmercury poisoning for upstream populations.
Ignoring these uncomfortable facts about our dependence on large-scale hydropower allows us to celebrate our supposedly clean electricity system while Canadian First Nations pay the price. This is a blatant example of environmental racism and cannot be tolerated!
We can do far more to meet our renewable energy requirements, create local jobs, and build community resilience by encouraging and investing in local, renewable power. Through our current dependence on Hydro Quebec, we are supporting an organization with a long history of disregard for the rights of indigenous peoples. With local renewable energy, we are supporting our local economy by keeping our energy dollars in-state and creating local jobs.
While we can’t undo the damage that large-scale hydro has already inflicted on the environment and Indigenous people, the Vermont Climate Council should change course and adopt an equitable, sustainable way forward. A just transition to a sustainable economy demands nothing less.
Ben Gordesky is the renewable energy manager at DC Energy Innovations and has been involved in the clean energy and environmental justice movements for decades.