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The Hydro-Quebec Eastmain 1A hydroelectric power plant in Eastmain, Que. on June 28, 2012.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec Premier François Legault wants to see his province’s electricity exports “explode” on his watch, but opposition to the construction of new transmission lines through New Hampshire and Maine continue to threaten Hydro-Québec’s ability to deliver power south of the border.

That alone should be enough of a reason for Ontario Premier Doug Ford to sit down with Mr. Legault to talk hydro. With Quebec’s neighbouring province facing a supply shortage as soon as 2023, and continued doubts about the cost estimates of refurbishing the Darlington nuclear plant, the timing may finally be right for Ontario to strike an interprovincial electricity alliance.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Legault suggested Ontario and Quebec could create a joint venture to build a new hydroelectric project to supply Ontario, sparing it from spending (according to Ontario Power Generation’s estimate) $14.9-billion to refurbish Darlington. Analysts are dubious the Darlington project can come in on budget, given previous experience.

Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator recently forecast a peak-period supply shortage in the province by 2023. With the permanent closing of OPG’s Pickering nuclear station by 2024, the shortage would grow significantly when Darlington’s reactors are shut down for refurbishment later in the decade. Maybe Ontario should rethink its plans altogether.

“If Quebec were to build a new hydroelectric project and transmission lines, we could offer Ontario clean energy at a lower cost than the $20-billion it is spending to refurbish its nuclear generating stations,” Mr. Legault said just before the Oct. 1 election, anticipating cost overruns on the Darlington project. “That would be a nice opportunity to contribute to Canada’s success.”

It would be easy to dismiss Mr. Legault’s proposition as idle talk. After all, proponents of an east-west Canadian energy grid have long urged Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador to work together to develop the country’s hydroelectric potential – to no end.

In 1998, then Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard and his Newfoundland counterpart Brian Tobin agreed to enter formal negotiations to develop a 2,200-megawatt hydroelectric project at Gull Island on the Lower Churchill River in Labrador. A deal was never reached and in 2010, another premier, Danny Williams, deemed Newfoundland would go it alone and build the far less attractive 824-megawatt Muskrat Falls project in Labrador. That decision has proved disastrous, with the $12.7-billion (and counting) Muskrat Falls threatening Newfoundland’s very solvency.

In 2015, former Ontario energy minister Bob Chiarelli and his then Newfoundland counterpart Derrick Dalley issued a joint statement saying they were exploring the possibility of jointly developing the Gull Island site to supply Ontario with power. But without an agreement to transport electricity through Quebec to Ontario, the project never got off the ground.

With new governments in Quebec and Ontario, is it time to revisit the Gull Island proposal – this time with Hydro-Québec piloting the project in partnership with Ontario and Newfoundland?

“I think the federal government would support a transmission project from Labrador [through Quebec] to Ontario with great pleasure,” said Jean-Thomas Bernard, an energy economist at the University of Ottawa. After all, the federal government provided loan guarantees on debt issued to build Muskrat Falls.

Another option Mr. Legault may be considering is the development of the 1200 MW Petit Mécantina hydro project on Quebec’s North Shore. That would require repairing relations with the Innu First Nations in the region, after Mr. Legault vowed during the campaign to kill a proposed 200 MW wind power project in which several Innu communities have a financial stake. Since taking office last week, Mr. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government has only said it intends to review the project, which Hydro-Québec initially argued would lead to big losses for the utility.

Meanwhile, Hydro-Québec’s inability to sign long-term sales contracts with U.S. buyers also suggests the utility should turn to Ontario for future deals.

In recent years, Hydro-Québec has sought to unload its current electricity surpluses in U.S. markets. But its export sales have occurred almost entirely on a short-term basis in the U.S. spot market, depriving the Quebec-owned utility of a permanent and certain revenue stream.

Hydro-Québec’s attempts to sign a long-term supply contract with Massachusetts continue to run up against opposition among U.S. environmentalists and renewable energy suppliers. The proposed Northern Pass transmission project that Hydro-Québec had favoured to transport power to Massachusetts was rejected by New Hampshire regulators. The project’s U.S. promoter, Eversource Energy, has appealed that decision in New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Hydro-Québec’s Plan B, the proposed New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line through Maine, now faces similar hurdles. Hundreds of opponents have filed submissions with Maine’s Public Utilities Commission seeking to block the project.

Perhaps it’s time for Hydro-Québec to look west, not just south.

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