State moves forward on public utility authorization

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(Host) A key Senate committee is moving ahead with a plan that would allow the state to buy power dams along the Connecticut River. The proposal also won support from State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding. He says it makes sense for Vermont to be ready to buy the dams if the price is right.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The six hydroelectric dams last changed hands in 1998, when California based Pacific Gas and Electric bought them from a Massachusetts utility. Utility experts say the dams sold at a premium price – about $1.6 billion. PG & E now needs to trim its debt and it’s put its New England projects up for sale.

State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding says Vermont should be ready to buy, in case it’s able to strike a bargain.

(Spaulding) “My general outlook on this is that in order to take advantage of opportunities, one needs to be prepared and willing to move forward. And I think it would be smart for Vermont to do that and create the public power authority and by investing some start up money.”

(Dillon) Spaulding told the Senate Finance Committee that the power authority could be structured in a way that would not affect the state’s overall debt. The authority could float revenue bonds, which could be paid off through the sale of electricity.

Vermont’s private electric utilities have raised questions about the plan. Among other issues, they’re concerned that a new state power authority could compete with them in the electric market. So the Senate Finance Committee plans to rewrite the legislation to create an entity that could make a bid for dams but wouldn’t actually enter the electricity business. That decision would be left to a later Legislature.

Dummerston Representative Steve Darrow has pushed the power authority idea in the House. He gave a mini-history lesson to the Finance Committee, and explained that a century ago the Connecticut River and its tributaries powered many Vermont industries. But he says that in the early 1900s, Massachusetts power companies built large dams and then exported the electricity.

(Darrow) “At that point, the loss of what was considered Vermont’s white coal was one of the biggest scandals in Vermont. And ever since then, that power has always been sent out of state.”

(Dillon) Outside the committee room, Darrow says he’d be satisfied if the Legislature took the first step to allow the state to bid for the dams.

(Darrow) “The important thing is that we can be ready for when the dams are being sold, ready to step in and be a bidder and purchase the dams. We don’t have the whole authority, as long as we have at least an acquisition authority and that that authority can react quickly enough to be a buyer. I think that would do the job.”

(Dillon) The Senate Finance Committee hopes to take action on the bill by early next week.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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