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Riverkeeper, an Original Advocate, Now Opposes Canadian Hydroelectric Project

New York City

Climate Mobilization Act, carbon emissions, hydroelectric power, green electric grid, nuclear power.

The shuttering of the Indian Point nuclear power plant has made New York City more reliant on fossil fuels.

Feb. 25, 2022

Co-op and condo boards struggling to cut their buildings' carbon emissions are banking on the greening of the electric grid — a shift away from electricity generated by fossil fuels to electricity generated by wind, solar and hydroelectric power. A major piece of that puzzle is the proposed $3 billion Champlain Hudson Power Express, a 339-miles transmission line designed to bring enough hydroelectric power from Canada to power 1 million New York homes.

That ambitious project has recently drawn an unlikely foe: Riverkeeper, a powerful environmental group that initially supported the plan, is now asking regulators to reject the deal, arguing that the hydro dams used to generate power are also significant sources of carbon emissions, Bloomberg CityLab reports. The Sierra Club shares many of its concerns.

“The more we look at this project, the more we think it’s not the right project,” says Richard Webster, Riverkeeper’s legal director. “This is not emission-free power.” 

The conflict puts Riverkeeper at odds with many other environmental and clean-energy advocates. If it manages to derail the line — which still needs approval from New York’s Public Service Commission — it would threaten the state’s goal of eliminating carbon from its grid by 2040. The biggest U.S. city today gets about 85% of its power from fossil fuels and has become even more dependent on natural gas after the Indian Point nuclear plant was closed in 2021.

Riverkeeper says it turned against the project after evaluating research on emissions from hydropower dams owned by Hydro-Quebec, which will supply the power. Using water to spin turbines and generate electricity doesn’t produce air pollution. However, the vast reservoirs needed to store the water are often created by flooding areas covered in plants and trees; over time, all that organic material will decompose and create carbon emissions.

Riverkeeper cites data from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher who concluded some hydro dams have emissions comparable to power plants that burn fossil fuels. Hydro-Quebec disputes the findings and questions the research methodology. The dams are already built, after all, meaning most of the upfront environmental impact took place years if not decades ago. And while some hydro dams can produce high levels of carbon, the company said that’s more common in warm regions, and the colder climate in Canada inhibits emissions from its system. “Hydropower from Quebec is one of the lowest carbon-emitting sources of electricity you can get,” says Gary Sutherland, the company’s director of strategic affairs and stakeholder relations for Northeast markets.

In fact, some climate groups have questioned how Riverkeeper can be fighting the hydro power project at all.

“We don’t feel the same way as them,” says Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “Hydropower is an appropriate source of power: It’s clean.”

For co-op and condo boards struggling to meet carbon emission caps under the city's Climate Mobilization Act, the loss of a source of clean electricity would complicate an already forbidding challe

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