Quebec hydro deal, new submarine cable perfect combination

Ghiz, Couillard discuss energy purchase but third underwater cable a key priority

Published on January 2, 2015

Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz is flanked by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, left, and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, right, at the closing news conference of the annual Council of the Federation meeting in Charlottetown on Friday, August 29, 2014.

©THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Premier Robert Ghiz said he considers advancements in early childhood education among his most important accomplishments as premier. As he begins the final countdown early this New Year in his career in provincial politics, there is another area where he might leave an important legacy.

Building a new power cable has been a priority for P.E.I. governments since at least 2005. There are now two aging underwater transmission cables supplying most of P.E.I.’s electricity needs from New Brunswick as part of a five-year energy deal which expires in 2016.

Two premiers – Pat Binns and Mr. Ghiz - have presented a wish list to Ottawa each year since 2005 and each time, the province has made a third cable a priority item.

Wind power is providing an increasingly important contribution to our electrical grid. With the recent startup of the wind farm in Hermanville/Clear Springs, the province is getting closer to generating one third of its energy needs from wind power. It’s availability is obviously largely dependent on wind but Island homes and businesses need dependable generation. New Brunswick has been our longtime supplier, from a mix of nuclear, hydro and oil-fired power plants around the province.

There was a recent search to find a small oil leak in one of the underwater cables on the seabed. It was finally located and repaired but illustrated the increasing deterioration of the cables, exposed to seawater since the late 1970s.

Maritime Electric is increasingly worried. It sent diving crews down last May to map out a proposed route on the seabed for a new cable, although indicating it didn’t have a preference for the underwater route or have it inside the Confederation Bridge. It hopes to have construction underway by 2016.

The utility had hoped to place an order by this past fall for the new cable, a project estimated between $100 million to $150 million. The sheer size and cost of the project necessitates major support from the federal government.

Maritime Electric is still working on securing funding which obviously will have a major impact in Island businesses and residences. Without substantial federal dollars, Maritime Electric will be forced to pass the cable costs onto its customers which means higher rates. Without competitive rates and secure power, businesses will be reluctant to establish or expand on P.E.I. where electricity costs are already among the highest in the country.

The importance of the third cable cannot be overstated. Not far behind are negotiations for a new power deal when the current agreement expires next year. So when Premier Ghiz held preliminary talks last month with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard to purchase hydro electricity, it was significant. A deal with Quebec could lower rates for a green source of energy.

Plans by N.L. to develop its own hydro generation from the Churchill River and use a submarine cable to Cape Breton to transmit into the Maritimes and New England is years away from completion so P.E.I. is wise to look elsewhere. Involving Quebec in negotiations helped sweeten the deal eventually signed with N.B. In late 2009, then-Quebec Premier Jean Charest said talks were underway on a possible energy deal with P.E.I., just weeks after a controversial takeover of the N.B. power utility by Hydro Quebec. Public uproar scuttled that deal and led to the defeat of the N.B. government.

Mr. Ghiz struck up a strong friendship with Mr. Couillard during the premier’s meeting in Charlottetown in late August. If the two men can get talks rolling on a long-term, cheaper hydro deal, then Mr. Ghiz’s legacy might yet be written.