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(HOST) The cost of energy is a hot topic in Vermont this winter, and commentator Tim McQuiston says that a new business coalition has just joined the debate.

(MCQUISTON) Its founding members, who came together less than two months ago, include the sort of usual suspects in the energy business: Central Vermont Public Service, Green Mountain Power and the Entergy Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, which was a lead player in forming the Partnership.

The group also includes like-minded business organizations and chambers of commerce. Organized labor is represented, because the other side of business development is jobs. Labor generally supports nuclear power because there are a lot of high-paying jobs at stake.

IBM, the state’s largest employer and largest electric consumer, joined the group. Count IBM among those members who want reliable and cheap electricity. IBM points out that it uses more electricity than the City of Burlington.

There has been a lot of motivation for a long time to bring inexpensive power to Vermont. So why, you might wonder, has this group only now just formed? The answer is that there are two big issues making their way through the Legislature, and time is starting to run out on big power contracts without an obvious alternative in sight.

The Vermont Yankee and Hydro-Quebec contracts are scheduled to expire in the next decade. In fact, Yankee is scheduled to be decommissioned in seven years. They each supply about a third of Vermont’s electricity. The Yankee license could be extended, and the Hydro-Quebec contract might be renewed. But as of right now, there’s a big void up ahead.

But really, it’s the Legislature, not the calendar, that has led to the flurry of activity among business leaders. The first bill deals with Vermont Yankee. The power plant needs to start storing nuclear waste in Vernon in what are known as dry casks as early as 2007. Right now, the spent fuel is put into a pool of water. But the pool will be filled up before the license expires. The Legislature must give its approval to this type of storage.

Separately, lawmakers are considering a Renewable Portfolio Standards bill. That bill would, among other things, require a certain level of renewable energy resources that a power company must use as part of its energy mix. This is a controversial concept. It not only would require a minimum percentage of renewables; it defines what counts as renewable. The biggies at the moment are hydroelectric and wind. But the portfolio standards also have plant-size limitations, which means power purchased from Hydro-Quebec would not count.

Business sees this bill as creating higher energy costs and choking off business development and costing jobs. Having IBM and the utilities and labor all in bed together may seem strange. But there is one thing they can all agree on: Vermont needs lower electricity costs.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.

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