New York and New England might think of the reservoirs and dams that dot Quebec as a giant battery — energy storage rather than a continuous power source.

All they need for that low-carbon, low-cost power are enough transmission lines to hydropower plants in northern Quebec. 

According to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the province’s hydropower is maximized when used to balance and store renewable electricity generated from variable U.S. wind and solar. Adding transmission lines would allow for two-way power flows, providing benefits for producers and consumers on both sides of the border.

Quebec’s hydroelectric exports provided about 15% of New England’s electricity in 2018 and a substantial amount of New York’s. The Empire State and Quebec already allow for energy to move back and forth during peak demand periods, winter in Canada and summer in New York. Northeastern states will have to both build new solar and wind capacity and increase imports from Quebec if they want to slash greenhouse-gas emissions, the researchers said.

“We’re really seeing it as a complement, a partnership between hydro and renewables in the U.S.,” Emil Dimanchev, one of the authors of the MIT study, told Bloomberg News. “The answer is, we should use both, at least as long as we want to decarbonize fast and at low cost.”

The researchers found that adding 4 gigawatts of new transmission capacity between New England and Quebec would slash the cost of zero-emission power in both regions by 17 to 28 percent.

  • Existing hydropower infrastructure is sufficient to provide balancing services to the Northeast without adding new reservoirs. Instead, hydroelectric facilities have to change their operating patterns to take into account for changes in demand and renewable power production.
  • Getting the transmission lines built won’t be easy if past experience is a guide. The New England Clean Energy Connect that would link Quebec to Massachusetts, supplying nearly a fifth of the state’s electricity consumption with clean power, has met opposition from Maine residents and environmental organizations.