Environmentalists: Power from massive Canadian dams isn't renewable

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Environmental activists from New England and Canada are demanding that political leaders stop promoting "false" solutions to climate change.

The Vermont Sierra Club, 350Vermont and other environmental groups are protesting a New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers conference this week. They oppose new fossil fuel infrastructure and say electricity from large hydro dams or biomass plants should not count as renewable energy.

Energy is a major focus of the conference, which will take place at Stowe Mountain Resort, Sunday through Tuesday. The environmental coalition kicked off events with an energy and climate forum at the Waterbury Congregational Church Sunday evening. Twenty people attended.

Panelists said that neither large scale hydropower nor biomass should be considered "carbon neutral" forms of electricity production.

Labrador activists Roberta Benefiel and Tracey Doherty described in a video the devastating effects of the Muskrat Falls dam on the 532-mile Grand River and the Innu, Inuit and Metis peoples who depend on that river for their livelihoods. The $12.7 billion dam will contaminate fish with methylmercury and poison those who fish the river, they said.

Doherty said that the project violates the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples because it ignores concerns voiced by members of the indigenous communities near the dam. "We've been oppressed people for centuries now," she said. "It can't only be the business voice in our community that is heard — it has to be all the people."

Vermont gets about 30 percent of its power from Hydro-Quebec, which generates electricity from a massive series of dams near James Bay and in eastern Quebec. The company is planning another large scale hydro project on the Romaine River, north of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Several large transmission lines that would move electricity from Quebec and Labrador to areas of New England have been proposed over the past few years.

Becky Bartovics, an organic farmer from the Maine island of North Haven, detailed the environmental cost of the infrastructure needed to transport hydropower out of Canada and onto the New England grid. New England Clean Energy Connect — a proposed 145 mile transmission line from the Quebec-Maine border to Lewiston, Maine — would destroy 263 wetlands and stifle the state's growing renewable energy sector, she said.

"Is this the way of the future, more large scale transmission lines?" Bartovics asked. As an alternative, she described a smart grid project in Boothbay that used distributed renewable energy generation like solar to save millions of dollars by obviating the need to build new transmission lines.

The cold weather region needs to invest in energy efficiency to reduce demand, Bartovics said. "It's very unsexy, but it's the most important thing," she said.

Rachel Smolker, co-director of Biofuelwatch, said while biomass fuel from trees is renewable, it does not account for the much larger amount of carbon stored in an older tree. "A 200 year old tree, you could burn in two seconds," she said.

Climate change impact should be one of the criteria considered by the Public Utilities Commission for approval of new energy projects, according to Geoffrey Gardner, a member of the Upper Valley Affinity Group. He said the state warped the notion of "public good" when it permitted Vermont Gas to seize land for a pipeline in Addison County.

"Natural gas is not clean, we all know that," Gardner said. "And what's more beyond that is as you build this infrastructure, you're dedicating yourself to 30 or even 40 years of using that fuel rather than renewables."

Henry Harris of Plainfield expressed frustration with the apparent need to "analyze and assess and reconvene and curate" potential responses to climate change, which he likened to divers evaluating the cause of the Titanic's sinking. "Just because things are greener in Vermont right now, doesn't mean things are tenable in the medium term," Harris said. "We're going down."

Each state and province needs to articulate a clear response to climate change that includes adaptation to erratic weather caused by climate change, said Steve Crowley of the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club Vermont. "How much worse are droughts going to get in the summertime before we start thinking about reservoirs?"

The coalition is hosting a rally starting at 2:30 p.m. Monday at the entrance to Stowe Mountain Resort followed by a press conference at 5 p.m.

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