In 1976, three of Jackie Harvey’s friends went to jail for protesting the construction of a new power line through her town. A few nights before Christmas she was standing outside the Franklin County Jail:
"See that red brick part, that's where the jail was. To tell you the truth I don't know which floor they were on, but I remember standing out there and that's where we sang for them."
On a sub-zero night, her group sang carols in support of the imprisoned women.
But Harvey’s group ultimately failed. Today, tall transmission lines run right by Harvey’s house, the highways for the electric system. The towers put on a show in a lightning storm. And if you take a fluorescent bulb outside, the line’s electromagnetic field makes it glow.
But the line does more than that; it carries a hot commodity. Canadian hydroelectric powered almost five percent of New York’s homes, jobs and radios in 2010.
Just five percent—but that five percent of a lot. That power represents almost half a trillion dollars, depending on whether you use Canadian or American math.
And New York could gobble up more today. But to get that power to the U.S. New York needs new transmission lines. Right now, regulators are considering a cable from Canada known as the Champlain-Hudson Line which would be sunk in the Hudson River.
"It's a huge line and it's gonna help a lot with the New York City and downstate area."
This is Congressman Tom Reed, speaking after a town hall in Phelps, a tiny town about halfway between Syracuse and Rochester.
The line won’t go through his district at all but he still signed onto a letter supporting it this summer.
Back in his days as a lawyer he worked with a local rural electric co-op. And saw just how expensive it can be to buy power on the open market.
"We went over with the demands from the co-op and that caused the supply issue where we had to go on the outside market to purchase that and that was a tremendous amount of cash."
So the line which would bring in Canadian hydropower makes sense to Reed. If the new power can help ease the bumps in the road for the power market, he thinks everybody wins. The fact that it’s renewable energy is just icing on the cake.
But some of New York’s green companies still don’t like the idea, because they think it could be bad for business. If you’re building solar panels, a lot of cheap hydropower looks like competition.
"We really feel that New York should be putting those dollars into investments into resources that are home grown here in New York state."
Carol Murphy works with a lot of solar and wind companies. She runs what’s essentially the Empire State’s green tech Chamber of Commerce, the Alliance for Clean Energy New York.
Murphy—and those New York-based businesses especially—don’t want to see the state use Canadian hydro in the future to meet its clean energy quota.
"If we were to do that you could pretty much wipe out any investment."
It’s similarly complicated across the border. There’s opposition and there are supporters.
But one player on the Canadian side has said if the line happens, they want in. NALCOR, the provincial power authority of Newfoundland & Labrador has plans to generate more power to ship south. And tomorrow, in the second part of our series, we’ll travel to the northern Atlantic province to see what it could look like on the other end of the Champlain-Hudson line.