Energy crossroads

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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert hopes for a lively debate on energy issues as this year’s Legislature begins its work.

(Gilbert) Vermont is once again standing at a historic crossroads when it comes to energy. This year’s Legislature will be at the center of decisions about which direction to take.

The crossroads is the role that state government should take in providing electrical energy to the state’s residents and businesses. The specific issue is the possible purchase of hydroelectric dams in the Connecticut River valley.

We’ve been here before. A massive public power project along the Connecticut was discussed in the 1930s. And the creation of a public power authority to buy Canadian power was discussed in the 1960s. The 1930s project would have been like the TVA in Tennessee, or the Columbia River project in Oregon — a huge, federally-financed project that would have brought cheap electricity to northern New England. Senator George Aiken fought the dams. He worried that too much farmland would be lost. He also worried that the scale of the project would mean that the electricity industry would dominate Vermont politics. The 1960s initiative was pushed by Governor Phil Hoff. He wanted to take advantage of cheap power available from new hydro dams in Canada. Both initiatives failed — at least in the way that they were originally conceived. Over time, though, some dams were built in the Connecticut Valley. And eventually hydro power was imported from Canada. These efforts were undertaken by private companies. Whether the public got the full benefit of these initiatives is a good question. And whether the public was given adequate opportunity to shape the initiatives is also worth asking.

So far, the current debate over possible state purchase of the Connecticut hydro dams has focused on cost. But the bigger issue is the role of state government — the public — in electricity issues. The purchase of the dams could make the state a major player in this area. That may be inconsistent with the limited-government philosophy embraced by the Douglas administration.

The Douglas administration has been lamenting the high cost of electricity in Vermont. It’s bad for business, the Governor has said. And recently the administration carved out a special deal for IBM. Critics say it benefits IBM at the expense of everyone else.

Meanwhile, the chance to gain greater control over power costs could be sitting right in front of us, in the form of the hydro dam purchases. Will the administration give fair hearing to the proposal? Will it take up the opportunity to be part of a solution? Recently, it’s indicated it might.

As a state, we’ve made tremendous strides in addressing energy issues. Last year Efficiency Vermont won what’s called the “Oscar” of government awards: an Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Governor Douglas said at the time, “We’re proud that the nation can look to Vermont for solutions to America’s energy challenges.” That was well-deserved praise. Now let’s hope there’s a fair, full and lively debate on energy issues as the Legislature gets to work.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a writer active in civil liberties and education issues.

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