What is to be the largest development of an infinitely renewable energy source in North America was formally opened in northern Quebec today when provincial Premier Rene Levesque started the first of 16 turbines at the James Bay Hydroelectric Project.
The $13.8 billion development, 900 miles north of here, will produce 5,000 megawatts of electricity by the end of next year and more than 10,000 megawatts by its scheduled completion in 1985.
Apart from meeting Quebec's energy requirements, James Bay will also help relieve energy shortages in the northeastern United States, especially in New York and to a lesser extent in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont.
Quebec officials said that the guaranteed annual energy output of James Bay will be 62.2 billion kilowatt hours. New York currently imports 6.5 billion kilowatts per year from Quebec at roughly half the cost of producing the same amount of energy on the most efficient oil generator. New York plans call for 12.6 billion kilowatts in imports from Quebec by 1984.
The mammoth new facility is likely to become a major selling point in Levesque's campaign to take his predominantly French-speaking province out of the Canadian federation. A referendum on Quebec's sovereignty is scheduled for next spring.
Durng cermonies televised on the national French-language network today, Levesque sought to portray James Bay as an example of what Quebec residents can do on their own, implying that "this gigantic monument" was part of their struggle for independence.
Though Levesque had opposed the project when it got under way in 1971, when his separatist Parti Quebecois was in opposition, he has been one of the architects of Quebec's policy of limiting reliance on oil and gas in favor of hydroelectric energy.
Aides to the provincial premier have indicated that they are prepared to negotiate increased exports of electricity to the United States, but that they should follow seasonal patterns.
Quebecers are substantial amounts of electricity during the winter for home heating. But there are surpluses in summer months and considerable amounts can be exported between April 1 and Oct. 1 to meet peak summer needs in the northeastern United States.
The government's energy policy seeks to increase the proportion of hydroelectric energy in its total energy consumption from 22 percent this year to 43 percent by the end of the next decade.
James Bay will account for about 50 percent of Quebec's total hydroelectric capacity by 1985.
The total drainage basin of the facility extends over a area of 68,000 square miles -- larger than the combined territory of the New England states.
Today's ceremonies were conducted in a huge underground vault cut out of rock to house the first of the three power stations that make up the James Bay complex. Absent from the ceremonies were representatives of the Cree and Inuit tribes who live in the area
The leader of 6,000 Crees, Chief Billy Diamond, said his people remained opposed to the project. Four years ago the Crees and the Inuits accepted land guarantees and a cash settlement totaling $225 million from the Quebec government.