The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is currently undertaking a study to asses the impact of what could be a massive change in the state’s standards for what passes as renewable energy.

The study comes after this year’s legislation that overhauled the state’s energy and environment agencies, and called for the creation of clean energy initiatives.

If the study concludes that it is prudent to change the standards for renewables it could allow for increased use of cheap, hydroelectric power, piped in from Canada. The current Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) for Connecticut only allow for hydroelectric power that comes from a facility generating no more than 5 megawatts, and doesn’t “cause an appreciable change in the river flow.”

“Hydro power from the Eastern Canadian provinces is certainly one of the important issues DEEP will look at as we develop the energy strategies and plans for our state that we are required to develop under this year’s energy legislation,” DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain said in an email this week.

The study coincides with a trip by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last month to Halifax, Nova Scotia with several other New England governors.

The Americans told their Canadian counterparts to hurry up and develop a proposed hydroelectric project in Labrador so they could buy energy from it.

Malloy was quoted by Canadian news media telling the Canadian premiers that “time is running out” to do the deal.

Lower Churchill Falls, as the project is known, would create two generating stations with a combined capacity for 3,074 megawatts, significantly more than the 5 that DEEP currently allows in its renewable energy portfolio.

The project has been delayed because of a dispute over transmission of the power between the provinces of Newfoundland and Quebec.

Newfoundland currently does not have the capacity to bring the power from the project to New England, but Quebec, through its large public utility Hydro-Quebec, can provide the energy.

The two provinces disagree about whether the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador would have to sell the power to Quebec, or merely lease its transmission infrastructure.

Malloy was quoted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation last month saying that although he wants to buy power from Canada, “we have built a substantial desire amongst investors in our state to develop alternative energy — non-Canadian — because of the lack of direct discussion and belief that the product is going to be delivered in a timely fashion.”

Malloy’s spokesperson, however, said this week that buying hydroelectric power from Canada is “an intricate and involved process, and likely years away.”

“While Gov. Malloy has been clear that there are specific issues that need to be addressed quickly – namely the financial and transmission issues associated with a project like this – resolving those won’t make hydro a reality overnight,” Colleen Flanagan, Malloy’s spokeswoman, said in an email.

Malloy’s flight and hotel room was paid for by the New England Governor’s Conference.

Any possible power from the Churchill Falls Project would likely have to be piped into the New England power grid through transmission cables that are yet to be built.

Other Hydroelectric Projects In The Works

Northeast Utilities, Connecticut’s public utility company, is currently partnered with Hydro-Quebec and Boston’s NSTAR to construct a proposed $1 billion high-voltage direct current (HVDC) line from Quebec into the New England power grid.

That project, known as Northern Pass, would bring 1,200 megawatts to New England for the next 40 years. Northern Pass only has plans for hydroelectric power from Quebec, which would not qualify as renewable under current Connecticut standards.

If Connecticut’s RPS are expanded to include large-scale hydroelectric power, the power produced from the Northern Pass project would have increased value, because it would be more attractive for states looking to meet their renewable energy requirements, according to Al Lara, a Northeast Utilities spokesman. He was quick to stress, however, that Northeast Utilities is not seeking subsidies, nor had it planned to receive any. 

Schain confirmed that neither the construction nor operation of Northern Pass would be subsidized if the renewable portfolio is expanded.

Vermont is the only state in New England that classifies large amounts of hydroelectric power as renewable energy. It changed its standards in 2010 to allow it to sign a deal with Hydro-Quebec.

Hydro-Quebec has come under fire in recent years for its wide scale damming of rivers in northern Quebec, and for its sometimes heavy-handed dealings with local Aboriginal populations in the areas from which it seeks to derive energy.

In 2004, a tower belonging to the company was bombed by a group calling itself “Resistance Internationaliste.” In a statement released to the press at the time, the group denouced the “pillaging” of Quebec’s resources by the U.S.

Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, vice chairman of the Energy and Technology committee, acknowledged that although Hydro-Quebec is controversial, she is committed to reaching 20 percent renewable energy by 2020.

“I want to hold on to the goals. I want to figure out how to achieve those goals, and if it means incorporating a bit of Hydro-Quebec, than so be it.”

Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, said that he would support the expansion of the RPS to include hydroelectric power, and would also support an energy deal with Canadian brokers, regardless of whether it was classed as renewable.

When asked about Canadian hydropower’s controversial history, he spoke of his desire to get the U.S. off of foreign oil.

“Is it more controversial than sending men and women into harm’s way in Afghanistan and in Iraq and in, potentially, other parts of the world to make sure than we have enough oil to fuel our economy while we dirty our air? Is it more controversial than that?”

Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, who is vice-chairman of the Energy and Technology Committee, said that he also supports the purchase of hydroelectric power from Canada.

“Connecticut doesn’t have its own natural resources to lower electric rates . . . You’ve got to diversify as much as possible,” he said.