Board hears testimony on purchase of hydroelectric dams

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(Host) A state utility expert says it may not make sense for Vermont to buy a series of power dams on the Connecticut River. The expert told a new state board studying the issue that the dams are not a good fit with Vermont’s existing mix of energy sources.

VPR’s John Dillon has the details:

(House) The Legislature this spring set up the Vermont Renewable Power Supply Acquisition Authority. The new board will look at the cost and feasibility of Vermont buying six hydro dams on the Connecticut River. These dams – along with other projects on the Deerfield River in southern Vermont – are for sale. A subsidiary of Pacific Gas and Electric owns them now but it’s close to filing for bankruptcy and needs to raise cash.

The authority met for the first time in Montpelier on Wednesday. The panel heard from a specialist at the Department of Public Service who said the dams might not complement Vermont’s existing mix of power sources.

David Lamont told the authority that Vermont already gets the bulk of its power from long-term contracts with Vermont Yankee and Hydro- Quebec. He says it probably doesn’t make sense to lock in another big block of power.

(Lamont) “Really, it would not be considered good portfolio management, I don’t think, to have your entire supply tied up in these kind of fixed contracts, fixed assets. So this is a lot of power for us to take. It’s about half of our state peak load. So this would be a big addition to our portfolio which is already pretty full of contracts and supply sources that are not subject to cancellation or adjustment.”

(Dillon) At their maximum output, when the river is high in the spring, the dams can produce about 500 megawatts. The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which is scheduled to go off line in 2012, produces 540 megawatts. But Lamont says the Connecticut dams can’t fully replace Yankee, since they’re used to make electricity for times of peak demand. Yankee supplies base load power that’s used all the time.

(Lamont) “But this could be a piece of the puzzle, certainly, to replace the energy we get from Vermont Yankee. But it would not be an exact match.”

(Dillon) Advocates of the public power authority say Vermont now has a once in a lifetime chance to gain control of a valuable energy resource. Administration Secretary Mike Smith, who chairs the panel, says he has an open mind about whether Vermont should get into the power business.

(Smith) “I have no problem recommending to the governor, if this proves financially feasible for the state, as well as prudent for the people of the state of Vermont. Conversely, if I don’t think it’s an advantage to the people of the state, I will express that concern as well.”

(Dillon) The new power authority is expected to meet about six times before it drafts a report for the Legislature.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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