One of Canada’s best opportunities to build more clean power and to reduce emissions – and dare we say it, foster national unity – starts with solving a knotty problem that stretches back more than half a century.
The idea makes economic sense, and it makes climate sense – it’s up to Ottawa, the provinces, and Indigenous peoples to make sure decades of fraught politics do not once again derail the potential to generate a new bounty of clean hydro power.
The source of 2,250 megawatts is at Gull Island on the Churchill River in Labrador. It’s downstream from the massive 5,428 MW Churchill Falls and up the river from the recent financial sinkhole at the 824 MW Muskrat Falls.
The power from Gull Island can bolster the fortunes of Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador and local Innu communities. New sources of clean power would help Ontario avoid an expected increased reliance on fossil fuels for power generation. A win-win-win deal is there for the making.
More than 80 per cent of electricity in Canada is clean. Ottawa wants to reach net-zero power by 2035. It is working on what it calls a national clean electricity standard. But power generation is overseen by the provinces and that means Canada effectively operates as 10 different countries when it comes to electricity. Hydro is bountiful in British Columbia, Manitoba, and Quebec – while neighbouring provinces such as Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario depend on fossil fuels. Hydro exports mostly go south, not east or west.
The lack of east-west co-operation has long been absurd. Provinces pursue their narrow self-interest and Canada as a whole loses. The challenge of climate heating presents a greater urgency than in the past, when profits were the main motivator. As large parts of the economy electrify, from transportation to home heating, Canada may need to double its power supply. Past discord cannot undermine future successes.
In the 1960s, Newfoundland wanted to develop Churchill Falls but geography dictated Quebec’s involvement. A transmission line across Quebec, to Ontario and the United States, would have made sense, but Ottawa didn’t intervene. Quebec secured favourable terms, but also took considerable financial risk to get Churchill Falls built. That bet paid off handsomely for Quebec. As of the late 2010s, the contract had made Quebec almost a cumulative $28-billion while Newfoundland received just $2-billion. The Innu were excluded; a new lawsuit from an Innu group against Hydro-Québec for damages was filed this month.
The lopsided power deal, which runs until 2041, has enraged generations of Newfoundlanders, but the promise of a do-over at Gull Island always had potential to soften the blow. Quebec and Newfoundland came close to a new deal in the late 1990s – including transmission lines – but Newfoundland then decided to instead go it alone. Gull Island was set aside and Newfoundland built Muskrat Falls, which became a financial disaster as the budget almost doubled.
Gull Island, because of its obvious promise, has been a perennial possibility. Quebec Premier François Legault in early 2020 talked about starting formal talks about the co-development of Gull Island. Mr. Legault has also said more power transmission between Quebec and Ontario would be “a nice opportunity to contribute to Canada’s success.”
Earlier this month, it was back to battling. Mr. Legault proposed building new generation capacity in Quebec to bolster the province’s negotiating position as the Churchill Falls contract ends. Newfoundland is likewise working on ideas to strengthen its hand. The Innu are still frustrated, from the history at Churchill Falls to a so-so deal they struck at Muskrat Falls. A true collaboration at Gull Island can assuage old wounds and answer future challenges, for both provinces, the Innu and Canada’s climate goals.
Hydro power in Quebec and Labrador can provide baseload electricity and serve as a battery to complement renewable power in those provinces and elsewhere. In Ontario, for instance, a reliably large volume of hydro power could clear the way for low-cost wind and solar. The same can happen between B.C. and Alberta, where B.C. is building the new Site C hydro dam while Alberta has become Canada’s solar and wind capital.
A solution at Gull Island to benefit all should have been figured out long ago. The next best time to remedy all those failings is right now.