Premier Tim Houston says he is “no longer optimistic” that a proposed and much-discussed Atlantic Loop project that would deliver renewable energy from Quebec to the Maritimes is viable.
The estimated $5.5 billion project involves building 800 kilometers of new overhead power lines, as well as a new transmission line at the border of New Brunswick-Nova Scotia, to deliver 500 megawatts to Nova Scotia Power. That’s just slightly more than the current capacity of the Maritime Link, a submarine cable that delivers hydroelectricity from Muskrat Falls, Labrador to Cape Breton.
On Wednesday at the legislature, Houston was asked about a comment made two days ago by Dominic LeBlanc, the federal minister for intergovernmental affairs and infrastructure. LeBlanc said he was “very optimistic” an agreement in principle to proceed with the Atlantic Loop could be reached by mid-summer. Leblanc told reporters the federal government’s lead negotiator was “encouraged” by conversations among Emera, New Brunswick Power, and Hydro-Quebec.
The latest federal budget mentions the Atlantic Loop as a project that might qualify for a portion of $20 billion allocated to the Canada Infrastructure Bank for “greening electricity infrastructure.”
Houston’s response was, essentially: show me the money.
“Look, if it is something that is achievable and the federal government can step up in a meaningful way and support the ratepayers in Nova Scotia, like they have done in Newfoundland… I would like to see that. I would like to see a meaningful, straight-on investment in the project from the federal government to support the ratepayers,” Houston said.
Houston noted that time was running out and he expressed doubt the project is viable unless Ottawa is prepared to support “ratepayers in Nova Scotia as they have in Newfoundland.” That was a reference to a $5.2 billion bailout Ottawa provided Newfoundlanders after skyrocketing costs on the Muskrat Falls project were about to double power rates in that province.
A sea change in rhetoric
For the past several years importing renewable power from Quebec has been repeatedly touted by politicians, various studies, and Scott Balfour, the chair of Nova Scotia Power and Emera, as the key to closing four coal-fired generating stations by 2030. That’s the deadline legislated by the province to reduce carbon emissions.
Two months ago, the Halifax Examiner asked a spokesperson for Nova Scotia Power if Hydro Quebec, which anticipates demand within its own province to grow exponentially over the next 10 years as it continues to electrify vehicles and buildings, would have additional electricity to export. Here is the response from spokesperson Mina Atia:
We [Nova Scotia Power] have an important role to play in Nova Scotia’s energy transition given Government’s ambitious climate goals of moving off coal and reaching 80 percent renewable by 2030.
We continue to believe the Atlantic Loop is the most effective way to progress carbon reduction initiatives in the region and we hope the federal government will support this project, so we remain engaged in the discussions. Supply volumes, costs and investment options are part of those discussions”.
Reporters asked Houston about the province’s Plan B if the Atlantic Loop doesn’t proceed.
“We’re working on that. Is it more wind? Is it more solar?” Houston said. “It sure would be nice if we could get the energy from Muskrat Falls that we are paying for, too. We’ve been hurt by that and I’ll have more to say at a later time. The goals are legislated. We know we need to green the grid and we know the energy mix will be different.”
The province has signed contracts with half a dozen independent power companies, which are teamed up with First Nations to generate 350 megawatts of wind power by 2025-26. It has also rewritten legislation to allow the province to contract with developers of battery storage technologies.
Nova Scotia Power cancelled its multi-million-dollar investment in battery storage this year after the Houston government limited how much money it could obtain from ratepayers.
But without a firm supply of imports and ongoing technical problems with receiving the anticipated amount of hydro from Muskrat Falls, it’s looking increasingly unlikely Nova Scotia will be able to get off coal by 2030.
Response from Opposition leaders
Liberal leader Zach Churchill had the following response to Houston’s disillusionment with the Atlantic Loop.
“He has to dig into these files. Instead of blaming everyone else, he has to start taking his job as premier seriously and developing solutions within his own government, making sure the investments are going in the right areas, particularly this project.”
NDP leader Claudia Chender expressed her doubt and concern that the province has figured out a credible alternative to the Atlantic Loop.
“We’ve been asking for years, is there a Plan B? Because the Atlantic Loop has never been a sure thing. So, I think for the premier to start to question whether that’s the right approach without providing any tangible alternative is really concerning for the environmental future of our province and our contribution to climate commitments… the premier says ‘wind, solar’ and we are supposed to feel like that is a plan, and it’s not.”