by Charles Cirtwill

Did you know Nova Scotia is an island? It surprised me too, but apparently at least as far as electrical generation and transmission is concerned we are effectively an island, and a fairly isolated one at that.

While not impossible, it is very hard for us to bring electrical power to Nova Scotia and to move electrical power from Nova Scotia. Okay, perhaps “difficult” is even too strong a word so let’s say there is an upper limit on how much electrical energy we can move around. The problem is that the current limit is starting to impede important economic opportunities. Make no mistake, we have in place the capacity to move and manage electricity to meet our current domestic needs quite well. It is when we look to the future that our status as an island becomes clear and the need for new infrastructure inescapable.

Right now we have a series of interconnections that do not form a complete circle in this region. We have several dead ends and side roads that increase costs, reduce efficiencies and make it very difficult to build in redundancies. Redundancies are important because electricity is ultimately about reliability for the consumer. When you flick the switch the lights should come on. You should not have to wait for the wind to change direction or for the folks in Bangor to shut off their air conditioners.

According to several folks I spoke with in Cape Breton a week or so ago, a key missing piece of this puzzle is to finish the electricity transmission “circle”. Build an undersea link between Nova Scotia and New England that would allow electricity to flow in a complete grid across the entire Atlantica region. The discussion of the potential for an undersea line linking southern Nova Scotia to New England has been around for years. The interesting thing this time is that we have Cape Bretoners arguing for development in Yarmouth because that development would help the Capers build more of their own projects – now that is Atlantica in action.

Such a link might have other benefits for Nova Scotia and the rest of Atlantica too. Consider a presentation given at the recent Atlantica Conference held in Halifax. Newfoundland Power took that opportunity to outline the significant benefits of the Lower Churchill development. Access to the energy generated by this clean and renewable hydro-electric project could enable provinces and states throughout Atlantica (and beyond) to shift to lower cost, reliable energy while taking off line older and arguably less clean coal fired generation capacity.

The proposed route for this energy would bring the power via undersea line from Labrador to Newfoundland and then from Newfoundland to New Brunswick. Yes, New Brunswick, not Nova Scotia. Despite the fact that Nova Scotia is significantly closer to Newfoundland and that undersea power lines are very expensive. I was curious as to why, so I asked. It turns out that, first off, “pancaking” of transmission rates (stacking one rate on top of another) would drive up the price of Lower Churchill electricity. Apparently, the longer undersea power line is cheaper than the pancaked rate of running through two provinces. Secondly, Nova Scotia has only a single connection to the continental grid increasing the risk of service interruption due to breakdowns or maxing out the capacity of the existing infrastructure whereas New Brunswick has just upgraded some of its linkages to the grid and is exploring how to do more.

These types of barriers are not only going to keep Lower Churchill electricity from travelling through Nova Scotia (and make it more expensive for consumers than it needs to be even if it goes through New Brunswick) they are also limiting the potential for further expansion of our own renewable energy projects. Proponents argue that the potential for Nova Scotia to become a centre of renewable energy is virtually limitless. They are quick to point out, for example, the innumerable potential locations for wind farms (locations that would not, by the way require us to put one in Anne Murray’s, or anyone else’s, backyard).

Problem is, they have limited ability to ship the power off once they generate it and even if they could send it along to market, pancaking and other inefficiencies guarantees them a higher cost product when it comes time to sell it to you and me.

Atlantica isn’t just about ports and roads and bridges. Saint John is fast becoming an energy hub. Nova Scotia, indeed all of Atlantica, needs to be seriously exploring the potential of becoming a sustainable energy gateway.

Charles Cirtwill is the acting President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies,, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax.