Hydro-Quebec Pushes New Dams

Utility faces opposition from economists, environmentalists, and native Cree Indians. POWER HOUSE

CONSIDERING that oil prices have doubled since July, Quebeckers ought to take comfort from several facts: Hydro-Quebec, the provincial utility, gets 95 percent of its power from hydroelectric generation - a renewable resource.

Quebec's 6.7 million residents pay one of the lowest electric rates in the developed world.

Quebec is one of the world's most ``electrified'' societies, relying on electricity for 40 percent of its energy needs, including transport. By comparison, the New England figure is near 18 percent.

In a region that faces extreme winters, electric heat is used in 71 percent of all dwellings in and 90 percent of new homes.

The Quebec territory east and south of James Bay has North America's largest untapped hydropower potential. If developed as planned, it will supply an amount equal to 25 percent of the continent's hydroelectricity.

But some in Quebec are not celebrating. Their ranks include economists and environmentalists, as well as the native Cree Indians who inhabit the James Bay territory's 135,000 square miles of black spruce forest.

Plans to further develop hydropower in the region have prompted charges as diverse as the sources: irreversible damage to a delicate subarctic habitat, trampling Indians' land-rights and destruction of their way of life, white-elephant projects.

``This project can only proceed because there's no public input. It's as simple as that,'' says H'el`ene Lajambe, an economist who is director general of the Center for Energy Policy Analysis in Montreal.

The rigid distrust harbored by antidevelopment forces is focused on state-owned Hydro-Quebec. An organization of unmatched influence and presence in Quebec, the utility accounts for 5 percent of the province's gross domestic product. In monetary terms, it is the largest nonfinancial institution in Canada.

Physically, Hydro-Quebec's facilities occupy 1 percent of the province. That could double in 30 to 40 years. It directly employs 19,400 people, and says it indirectly sustains 60,000 more jobs.

Critics like Stephen Hazell, executive director of the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee in Ottawa, refers to the utility as a ``bureaucracy run wild ... with no checks or counterchecks. Hydro-Quebec is in the business of building dams at all costs.''

The utility's influence is rooted in history. In a province where the English-speaking minority once dominated white collar employment, Hydro-Quebec was the first company to put Francophones in high-paying jobs.

``At some point it became a vehicle for Quebec nationalism,'' says Ms. Lajambe ``It took the people of Quebec a long time to realize the harm being done by their favorite company because it was sacred to them.''

Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa has used cheap electricity successfully to attract power-guzzling industries like aluminum smelters, even though Quebec has no bauxite, the ore from which aluminum is made. Next year alone, the utility says more than 22,000 jobs will be added by companies attracted by low electricity rates.

Now that Canada has failed to adopt the Meech Lake accord, which would have recognized Quebec as a ``distinct society,'' the province might choose to become independent. That makes Mr. Bourassa's economic development goals even more important.

Quebec's government intends for the province not only to produce electricity but to be a leader in related and new technologies. Hydro-Quebec supports research in fields like fusion and superconductivity.

Whether or not Bourassa's dreams of economic development come true depends on construction proceeding in the James Bay territory as Hydro-Quebec wants.

The utility already depends heavily on its existing project there, La Grande phase one. Completed in 1985, La Grande accounts for 40 percent of the utility's total installed generating capacity of 25,126 megawatts. In 1988 it produced 49 percent of the utility's 129 billion kilowatt hours of power.

Future projects will tilt reliance further toward James Bay. Phase two of La Grande is under construction. It will add 4,508 megawatts by 1993.

Grande Baleine, targeted for completion in 1995, will add 3,060 megawatts. Hydro-Quebec intends to begin construction of an access road this year from La Grande north to the Grande Baleine construction site.

Nottaway-Broadback-Rupert, to start up in phases beginning in 1998, will add 8,400 megawatts. Completion of these projects will boost Hydro-Quebec's reliance on the James Bay territory as a power source to 61 percent.

To Hydro-Quebec, these are projects the province will need sooner rather than later. So far, the province's power consumption has increased 50 percent since 1983. Hydro-Quebec projects its growth at 2 percent per year for the next 16 years.

Lajambe questions that growth scenario. ``We have one of the lowest birth rates in the world,'' she says, noting that without immigration Quebec's population would actually decline. ``They are extremely optimistic.''

Mr. Hazell dismisses Quebec as ``probably the most energy wasteful jurisdiction in North America - by design.'' Existing conservation methods, he says, could save the amount of power Grande Baleine would generate, and do it more cheaply.

A Hydro-Quebec spokesman, Jean-Marc Dessureault, notes that the growth scenarios published by neighboring jurisdictions range from 1.7 percent to 2.3 percent. And he points out that Hydro-Quebec will spend C$1.8 billion this decade on projects aimed at cutting annual electric consumption by 10 percent.

``Our opponents fail to recognize the merits of hydroelectric power as the most economical and least polluting source of electricity. And they think the potential of conversation is endless,'' Mr. Dessureault says.

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