Globe editorial: New energy is needed for clean power at Gull Island
One of Canada’s best ways to build more clean energy and reduce emissions — and dare we say it, foster national unity — starts by solving a thorny problem that dates back more than half a century.
The idea makes economic and climate sense – it’s up to Ottawa, the provinces and the indigenous peoples to ensure that decades of tight politics don’t once again derail the potential to generate a new bounty of clean hydropower.
The 2,250 megawatt source is on Gull Island on the Churchill River in Labrador. It lies downstream from the massive 5,428 MW Churchill Falls and upstream from the recent financial sinkhole at the 824 MW Muskrat Falls.
Gull Island’s energy can strengthen the fortunes of Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador and the local Innu communities. New clean energy sources would help Ontario avoid an expected increasing reliance on fossil fuels for power generation. A win-win-win deal is in the works.
More than 80 percent of Canada’s electricity is clean. Ottawa aims to achieve net zero electricity by 2035. It is working on a so-called national standard for clean electricity. However, electricity production is controlled by the provinces and this means Canada effectively acts as 10 different countries when it comes to electricity. Hydroelectric power is plentiful in British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec — while neighboring provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario rely on fossil fuels. Hydropower exports are mainly going south, not east or west.
The lack of East-West cooperation has long been absurd. The provinces are pursuing their narrow self-interest and Canada as a whole is losing. The challenge of global warming presents greater urgency than in the past when profits were the main motivation. As much of the economy becomes electrified, from transportation to home heating, Canada may need to double its electricity supply. Past discord cannot undermine future success.
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 did not intervene. Quebec secured favorable terms but also took a significant financial risk to have Churchill Falls built. That bet paid off well for Quebec. By the late 2010s, the treaty had netted Quebec nearly $28 billion overall, while Newfoundland received just $2 billion. The Innu were expelled; This month, a new lawsuit for damages was filed by an Innu group against Hydro-Québec.
The unilateral power deal, which runs until 2041, has infuriated generations of Newfoundlanders, but the promise of a turnaround on Gull Island always had the potential to soften the blow. Quebec and Newfoundland came close to a new deal — including transmission lines — in the late 1990s, but Newfoundland then decided to go it alone instead. Gull Island was set aside and Newfoundland built Muskrat Falls, which became a financial disaster when the budget nearly doubled.
Gull Island was a consistent possibility because of its obvious promise. Quebec Premier François Legault spoke in early 2020 of beginning formal talks on the joint development of Gull Island. Mr Legault also said that more electricity transmission between Quebec and Ontario “would be a beautiful opportunity to contribute to Canada’s success”.
It was back to fighting earlier this month. Mr. Legault proposed building new generation capacity in Quebec to strengthen the province’s negotiating position as the Churchill Falls Treaty expires. Newfoundland is also working on ideas to strengthen its hand. The Innu are still frustrated, from the story at Churchill Falls to a mediocre deal they struck at Muskrat Falls. True collaboration on Gull Island can heal old wounds and answer future challenges for both provinces, the Innu and Canada’s climate goals.
Hydropower in Quebec and Labrador can provide base-load electricity and serve as a battery to supplement renewable energy in those provinces and elsewhere. In Ontario, for example, a reliably large amount of hydroelectric power could pave the way for low-cost wind and solar power. The same can happen between BC and Alberta, where BC is building the new Site C dam while Alberta has become Canada’s solar and wind capital.
A solution on Gull Island that benefits everyone should have been found a long time ago. The next best time to fix all of these shortcomings is now.