Transmission Power: Finding North in NYC’s Electricity
12.29.2011, 8:13 pm
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“No matter where you look, you’re guaranteed to be awed by the gigantic scale of this imposing site.” – Hydro-Québec

The spillway of the Robert-Bourassa Dam, “one of many hydroelectric dams supplying power to the load centres of Montreal, Québec City, and the Northeastern United States.”
Each step is the size of two football fields. image wikicommons

Walking the streets of New York City, it’s hard not to imagine that the City could somehow self-generate the electricity it requires out of the sheer volume of activities, movements, dreams and aspirations of its inhabitants. Yet, as we delve deeper into our research for the Thingness of Energy, it’s clear that New York City is deeply reliant upon energy generating and transmission facilities far beyond its five boroughs. In reality, the City depends upon lines, cables and substations that connect it to remote infrastructures along networks that can extend more than 1200 miles beyond its glow.

Though it’s nearly impossible to confirm where any given watt of electricity comes from and goes to, we’ve spent a great deal of time over the last three months trying to pin down some likely sources for New York City. There are countless energy suppliers within our region, but we’ve narrowed our research to focus on some of the most notable. The most obvious and indisputably direct source of electricity for the City is Indian Point, the nuclear power plant station just up the Hudson River. Indian Point supplies between 12-25% of the City’s electricity. Then there’s the iconic Ravenswood Power Station in Queens, most easily seen from Roosevelt Island. Ravenswood was made famous back in 1963 by its unit #3, known as Big Allis, the world’s first million-kilowatt unit. Fueled primarily by natural gas, today Ravenswood supplies around 20% of the City’s electricity.

from The New School’s 2011 Climate Action Plan

According to the New School’s Climate Action Plan (PDF) New York City receives around 10% of its electricity mix from hydroelectric power. In a quest to hunt down the elusive whos, whats and wheres of this hydroelectric mix, we got caught up in the mesmerizing tale of the monumental earthworks that are the hydro-electric dams of Northeastern Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador. Three of these facilities captured FOP’s imagination due to their monumental power generation capacities and their imposing geomorphologic imprints upon the North American landscape.

The Robert-Bourassa generating station is the largest hydroelectric plant in Canada and the eighth largest in the world. It is a part of the massive, and controversial James Bay project, created for the Canadian government-owned public utility giant Hydro-Québec. Hydro-Québec describes the Robert-Bourassa facility as akin to “a vast cathedral carved into the bedrock!” During a public tour you can “Gape at the towering dam as high as a 53-storey building and marvel at the ‘giant’s staircase,’ with 10 steps each the size of two football fields!” They also exclaim that “Stupefaction [is] guaranteed!”

The second largest facility in Canada is the Churchill Falls generating station, located in Newfoundland and Labrador. This station includes a series of 88 dikes. In 1967 the project was the largest civil engineering project undertaken in North America. This facility is powered by the Churchill River, whose drainage area is larger than the Republic of Ireland, covering much of western and central Labrador for a total of 27,700 square miles. The once magnificent and rushing Churchill Falls today flows at a mere trickle during exceptional periods of rain due to the re-directing of the river for the facility.

Both of these projects were undertaken despite fierce opposition from the First Nations people who had inhabited these lands for centuries. The James Bay Cree opposed the James Bay Project, and Churchill Falls was opposed by aboriginal Innu people of Labrador. Churchill Falls induced the flooding of nearly 2,000 square miles of traditional hunting grounds. A recent agreement signed between the government and the Innu includes special hunting rights and $2 million compensation for flooding each year.

Google Maps locates the Churchill Falls Generating station about 1270 miles from The New School, New York

Manicouagan Reservoir, image NASA

Perhaps the most astonishing hydroelectric project site of all, due to its bizarrely fantastic geo-cosmological morphology, is the Manicouagan Reservoir. Who knew that New Yorkers today could benefit from an asteroid collision that occurred more than 200 million years ago?  This reservoir lake utilizes a 214+ million year old astrobleme (impact crater) known as the eye of Québec.  It is fed by the Manicouagan River, which in turn feeds the Manic-2, Manic-3, and Manic-5 generating stations downstream. It is said that the lake experiences low levels in extreme periods of heat during the summer, when “Hydro-Québec sells electrical energy to the joint New England grid and individual utilities in the United States.”

Times Square, image aherrero

Back on the streets of New York, it’s hard to project one’s imagination into the geologic realities that enable our lights to be aglow 24 hours a day, such as the flooding of thousands of square miles of boreal forest (that most of us will never see). Or that our demands for power contribute to the production of dams whose unprecedented weight can induce seismic activity or earth tremors. But whether it’s controlled nuclear fission up river, natural gas continuously burning in Queens, or dam projects in Canada the size of small countries, it’s all part of the larger energy story that confirms there is no zero in New York City, or elsewhere. There will always be material, possibly even planetary-scale, outcomes of our actions.

After several email inquiries and phone calls to various energy providers involved in the transmission and distribution of electricity in New York State, including ConEd and Hydro-Québec, and after weeks of online research, we haven’t nailed a direct, indisputable confirmation that specific Hydro-Québec dams directly fuel NYC. Though we can’t determine how much and when, we do feel confident stating that fluctuating amounts of the City’s electricity actually do come from the monumental hydroelectric infrastructures of Canada. Especially given the fact that “Canada typically exports between six and 10 percent of its production to the United States… Exports are sold primarily to the New England states, New York State, the Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest and California.” And, the Robert-Bourassa generating station is cited as generating power “for population centers in the Northeastern United States.” We’ve also repeatedly come across statements such as, “Hydro-Québec’s electricity transmission system is an expansive, international power transmission system located in Québec, Canada with extensions into the Northeastern United States.” Last but not least, during the 1965 Northeastern blackout, which originated at a hydroelectric facility in Ontario, New York City went dark along with many parts of southeastern Canada (prompting the establishment of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation).

Hydro-Quebec’s Transmission System

The main reason for why we can’t trace the flow of electricity directly from a northern Canadian source to a New School outlet is that once electricity leaves a power plant it hops on the transmission system and blends in with other electric power generated elsewhere. Hydro-Québec TransÉnergie operates the largest power grid in North America, comprising 515 substations and more than 20,500 miles of lines at various voltages. The incredibly elaborate system includes 16 interconnections with the Atlantic provinces, Ontario and the U.S. Northeast. So, it is along this vast and convoluted expanse of transmission—the most extensive in North America—that power from the mega-dams travels.  The Hydro-Québec website (under “Exports to New England and New York“) confirms our sense that the next time New Yorkers flip on the switch, they might want to pause and consider the tremendous forces in play, and the literal landscapes of energy, that supply the City that never sleeps:

“Hydro-Québec has been selling electricity to New England since the 1980s. This U.S. region accounts for about half the company’s exports…Electricity supply in New York State (open to competition since 1999) is affected by congestion on the transmission lines that connect the generating sites with the load centres. Although this supply is primarily intended for the Greater New York area, most of it comes either from western New York (Niagara and Oswego) or from the north, and from Hydro-Québec in particular. The power consequently flows mainly from west to east, with resulting congestion on the transmission grid. By regulation, the line that carries Hydro-Québec electricity to New York State is limited to 1,200 MW. However, Hydro-Québec can supply western New York by wheeling power through Ontario. In this way, it can help New York State reach its objectives in terms of developing renewable energies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” – Hydro-Québec

the Micoua substation on the North Shore of Québec. This facility converts 315 kV power coming from five hydroplants to 735 kV, image wikicommons

transformers at Robert-Bourassa generating station (LG-2) in northern Québec, image wikicommons

This post documents research that informs the production of the Thingness of Energy project, which will be installed at Parsons, The New School for Design in early 2012. The project is supported in part by The New School Green Fund for 2012.

8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

The Daniel-Johnson dam that creates Manicouagan reservoir is interesting too.

Comment by Jim

Judging by the photo, I find it hard to believe “each step” at the Robert-Bourassa Dam spillway is “two football fields high.” Perhaps each step is two football fields deep (e.g., into the hillside), and it is certainly many football fields wide.

Comment by Bradford Miller, PG

Thanks Bradford, we’ve clarified our wording and you are correct, each step is the size of two football fields.

Comment by FOP

If you want more information on Hydro-Quebec, I am ready to help you because I work on several projects with them.

Comment by David

I’m doing some research on electricity generation and I came across the New School’s ‘Climate Action Plan’ pdf. I wonder if someone in your department could help me clarify one of the claims in the report. There is a pie chart, Table 5 on page 12, which states that ‘32% of New York City’s generation come from Nuclear and 10% from Hydro’. That’s not possible. New York City is a load pocket and by law can only import 20% of its generation needs due to transmission limitations. We generate 80% of our power within the 5 boroughs and none of our generation is either nuclear or hydro. If anyone in your department could help clarify this table, I would greatly appreciate it.

Comment by John

Hi John,
I’ll pass on your email and hope that someone from the New School can get back to you about this.
Jamie (FOP)

Comment by FOP

They replied to an email I sent actually and their chart is correct (sourced from a 2010 PlaNYC document) although with a confusing label. Basically the 80% rule is max generation capacity. If the PlaNYC chart is correct, that means that during off-peak times of year, the in-city generation drops off substantially and we use far more nuclear and hydro from upstate. In other words, if the max recorded peak is ~13,000MW and ‘normal’ is 8,000 or 9,000MW, 20% of 13,000mw is more like 30% of 9,000mw. It sounds to me like the importation capacity of the city is ~5,000MW based on some other sources which is substantially bigger than 20% of the peak MWmax. I’ve read the city is considering a 1,000MW transmission line from Quebec to Astoria Queens which would be all renewable power generation.
Interesting stuff!

Comment by John

[…] the Friends of the Pleistocene has noted before the electrical infrastructure of northeastern North America is a bewildering network of twentieth […]

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