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Pt. 2: Where does our power come from?

In part one of our series on Canadian power, we brought you a first story on the hydroelectricity New York imports from Canada. Today, we visit the site of a proposed plan that might send more power our way from the Canadian province of Newfoundland & Labrador. 

Joe Goudi is working on a wood and canvas canoe, the kind that generations of his family paddled down Labrador’s rivers to reach their trapping grounds. His father and brother trapped on the Churchill River, heading north each fall. 

“When they were leaving in the morning, the men, would take out their 12 gauge shotguns and fire several rounds, sort of the trappers goodbye,” said Goudi.

Once they came back Gaudi would fall asleep listening to stories about the river. 

“They would come over to the house and get a yarn going with a cup of tea and probably a pipe and I'd sit at the side listen to their stories, listen to their conversation,” he said.

The Lower Churchill dam project would start where those men said their goodbyes. The backer is the energy company, NALCOR Energy. NALCOR wants to dam two sets of falls to produce about 3000 megawatts for the province of Newfoundland & Labrador, and for export to places like New York.  With the flooding, Goudi expects more mercury in the water and fewer fish. 

When you talk with a lot of the people concerned about those changes, many -  not just Gaudi - bring up their parents. 

“They just don't understand that it is a part of our lives,” said Daphne Roberts, who joined a local group called Grand Riverkeeper that opposes the project. 

This area of Canada’s far north that has changed a lot. In fifty years Labrador has gone from a place where many homes didn’t have electricity to a place that now has high speed internet, where snowmobiles are omnipresent. You get the sense that change has been a little traumatic. The river seems to provide some continuity people like. 

“I go sit on the riverbank and listen to the birds singing,” said Roberts. “I was there just two days ago and I said you're not going to get it. We're going to fight it. It's not going to happen.” 

But others see the dams creating a brighter future for the area. These people say they want jobs. They want to sell office supplies to the engineers. They want to keep kids in the region, like the classmates of Brandon Ramey. Ramey waits tables a couple evenings a week at a restaurant and bar called Maxwell’s. 

He’s President of the student council at his high school in the town of Happy Valley/Goose Bay. 

“It will just create more jobs all around and economic development,” said Ramey.

But Ramey acknowledges that maybe he’s being selfish. But he says he doesn’t have the same relationship with the river as older people who grew up on it. 

“I think there are broader social, environmental issues that certainly need to be considered,” said Gilbert Bennett. Bennett heads the project for NALCOR and says the project’s implications are bigger than just bringing more power into the marketplace. 

“Today as a society both Canada and the U.S. are among the most intense users of energy of any population on the planet,” he said.

Bennett argues that there will be local impacts but hydro-generated energy is clean, can replace coal and eliminate the emissions from dirtier plants that contribute to climate change. 

“This is an important transition from society driven by fossil fuels today to a renewable future,” said Bennett.

Opponents to Bennett’s plan say natural gas could be a better alternative to cut emissions. But the irony is, that while the dam is controversial in Labrador, gas drilling is controversial in New York. They’re two conflicts that will play out simultaneously, as both places decide who will power who -- and how. 

Read more on Emma's trip to Canada by visiting The Innovation Trail. Also, join us Fri. Dec 2 at 12:00pm and again at 7:00pm to hear an Innovation Conversation: Following the Power Lines