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Canadian hydro-electricity will go to U.S. amid Canada's demand for renewable energy

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Construction is underway on transmission lines from the Canadian province of Quebec to power millions of homes in New York and New England. Northeastern states plan to use Canadian hydroelectricity to meet their own renewable energy goals. These deals have been years in the making, but for the provincial power utility Hydro-Quebec, there's a bigger challenge to keep up with rising demand at home. Emma Jacobs reports from Montreal.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: The air shimmers along the length of the Beauharnois dam as warm air rises from a line of 36 massive hydro generators.

CLAUDELE MULLER: It's exactly like a toaster or barbecues.

JACOBS: Claudèle Muller, who's describing this mirage effect, gives regular public tours of Beauharnois. The dam has an art deco design. The first section was completed back in 1932.

MULLER: So we're going to head to the roof. There's one more staircase to go because the elevator doesn't go on the roof.

JACOBS: From the top of the dam, we can see the skyline of Montreal about 45 minutes away. Earlier this summer, Mueller says it was completely obscured by smoke from the record-shattering wildfires burning in Canada this summer.

MULLER: And, like, on the roof, I was like (gasping). I was like, OK, I took my dose of smog for the day.

JACOBS: Those fires have been amplified by climate change, and Hydro-Quebec is pitching itself as part of the solution. Serge Abergel heads Hydro-Quebec's U.S. exports. He argues that they can play a key role in transitioning Canada and the northeastern U.S. away from fossil fuels, starting with the two lines under construction to New York and New England.

SERGE ABERGEL: These contracts from the first year - 2026 onwards - will displace the equivalent of 1.5 million cars yearly because they are going to flow hydroelectricity into markets that are heavily dependent on burning natural gas and even, at times, oil.

JACOBS: There are others in Quebec who would rather see that energy stay north of the border. The province has had to turn away energy intensive manufacturers interested in moving here, upsetting business groups. They've also upset some environmental groups who think Quebec should be doing more to meet its own climate goals.

JEAN-PIERRE FINET: We're a bit like the cobbler - the barefoot cobbler, I would say.

JACOBS: Jean-Pierre Finet works for a coalition of Quebec environmental organizations.

FINET: We are not decarbonating and electrifying as much as we could, partly because of these contracts.

JACOBS: Even with all its renewable power, Hydro-Quebec is now scrambling for ways to generate more because of the ways energy demand is shifting for uses like electric cars. It's even discussed building expensive new dams. Unpopular with indigenous communities, new dams also transform ecosystems, and new reservoirs, which let you control the flow of electricity, also produce more emissions in the first couple of years as flooded plant life decays. Back on the roof of Beauharnois, you can see this dam doesn't have a big reservoir.

MULLER: Oh, and you're lucky. You can see the - a boat.

JACOBS: It's right on the St. Lawrence Seaway connecting the Great Lakes onto the Atlantic Ocean. But reservoirs are an important part of the equation when it comes to thinking about transmitting power between Quebec and the northeastern U.S., says Pierre-Oliver Pineau.

PIERRE-OLIVER PINEAU: In order to introduce lots of renewable, intermittent wind and solar, we need storage.

JACOBS: Pineau is an energy markets researcher at the University of Montreal's business school. He says the U.S. is mostly adding wind and solar, which don't generate power all the time while Quebec has a network of reservoirs at other dams, which are essentially like giant batteries.

PINEAU: In the amounts of terawatt hour, hundreds of terawatt hours of storage.

JACOBS: If power can eventually move both directions, reservoirs in Canada could store renewable power imported from the U.S., releasing it when needed back to New York or New England or even, when the timing is right, to power customers here in Quebec. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Beauharnois, Quebec.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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