State considers purchasing hydro dams on Conn. River

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(Host) Some Vermont lawmakers want the state to get into the electricity business. Six large hydroelectric projects on the Connecticut River are for sale. And advocates say it makes sense for the state to buy them.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Connecticut is the largest river in New England and it produces a massive amount of electricity. Six dams on the Connecticut – from the Northeast Kingdom to southern Vermont – generate 480 megawatts, or about half of the state’s electricity needs.

But all that power flows out of state. The Connecticut River dams – along with other projects on the Deerfield River – are now for sale. Some lawmakers say Vermont should put in a bid.

(Illuzzi) “I see it as a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

(Dillon) Senator Vince Illuzzi represents Essex and Orleans counties. He notes that over the next decade, Vermont will lose power contracts with Hydro Quebec that now supply about 30% of the state’s electricity. Illuzzi says the state will need replacement power.

The Republican senator chairs the Senate Institutions Committee, which drafts the state’s capital bill. Illuzzi has included $225,000 in the bill for a feasibility study that looks at whether the state should buy the dams.

(Illuzzi) “We’re talking long-term planning. This is not something we need today, but we may need in seven or 10 or 15 years. And when you’re in a position like I’m in, when you issue 20 year bonds and kind of look to the future, this is an intriguing idea I think we would be foolish to not seriously consider.”

(Dillon) The hydroelectric projects on the Connecticut – along with other dams on the Deerfield River in Vermont and Massachusetts – are owned by PG&E National Energy Group. They’ve been for sale for more than a year. Company officials told Illuzzi’s committee that it wants to sell the projects as a package that includes the Connecticut dams, the Deerfield projects and coal fired power plants in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Illuzzi says it’s possible the state could buy it all.

(Illuzzi) “We’re not necessarily looking at just the Vermont facilities. The feasibility study will look at whether we buy all the assets.”

(Dillon) The current owner paid $1.6 billion dollars for the Connecticut and Deerfield projects in 1998. Illuzzi says the company probably paid too much, and that they could now sell for $600 million to $900 million.

Legislation has been introduced to create a Vermont power authority to buy the dams. But Governor Jim Douglas has said he doesn’t support the idea of the state getting into the electricity business.

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

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