Sparks fly over national electrical grid

MONCTON, NEW BRUNSWICK - The country's provincial and territorial leaders have found another subject to squabble over: a proposed national power grid.

Though the provinces are officially keen to create an east-west network to more easily transport electricity between jurisdictions, Quebec is decidedly cool to the idea unless it happens on its own terms.

Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams, whose government is keen to relaunch the mothballed Lower Churchill Falls hydro mega-project to sell power to energy-hungry Ontario, said he would be open to having the federal government fund all or part of a new national electrical grid.

"A dollar is a dollar is a dollar, so if the money comes from the (federal) EcoTrust and gets put into transmission infrastructure, well then how is that really different than whether it's designated infrastructure funds."

Those remarks prompted a brusque refusal from Quebec Premier Jean Charest. "There will be no talk of a federal line," Charest said, bristling at the question.

Quebec is willing to develop new transmission capacity, but only as long as potential partners are willing to pay their share to have their hydroelectricity carried on Hydro-Quebec's network.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he's eager for Charest and Williams to sign an agreement on the Lower Churchill development so that Ontario can have access to cleaner power.

And McGuinty said he has no objections to Ottawa becoming involved, saying "if it's possible to accelerate the creation of a national grid and if we can add federal money outside Quebec, it would be in the national interest."

Charest said Quebec is committed to selling its surplus power, but that it will entertain belonging to a national power system only insofar as it gets a financial cut and there is room once the province's electrical needs have been sated.

"There is a consensus ... there is an agreement. Quebec is favourable to having of more inter-connections across the country. There won't be a single east-west line. There will be several lines in several places," he said.

"But it will have to respect our jurisdiction. What we won't accept is that people pass on Quebec's territory just like that without conditions.

"And we don't believe that the federal government should become involved."

The premiers unveiled a policy document spelling out a common vision for energy policy, which prescribes a series of measures including an energy conservation effort, infrastructure modernization and streamlining regulations.

Despite being two years in the making, the report offers little in specifics, and thanks to Quebec, makes no mention of an eventual national power grid.

Hydroelectricity has talismanic significance in Quebec, and Charest, whose fragile minority government is deeply unpopular, is clearly keen to paint himself as a defender of Quebec's interests.

That stance is at loggerheads with several other premiers who view a pan-Canadian grid – the bulk of the country's electrical systems are plugged into the United States rather than each other – as a nation-building exercise.


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