Illuzi pushes for power dam purchase

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(Host) A state senator says time is short for Vermont to buy a series of hydroelectric dams on the Connecticut River. Essex-Orleans Senator Vince Illuzzi says the state can’t afford to let the opportunity pass by. And he says public power is the answer to chronically high electric rates in Vermont.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) For months, Senator Vince Illuzzi has wanted Vermont to buy the hydropower dams on the Connecticut River. He pushed the plan in the Legislature and he’s now a member of a commission that’s studying the proposal.

But Illuzzi recently turned up the heat. At an energy conference this week, he lashed out at the state’s private utilities and the Douglas administration. He blames the state’s investor owned utilities for high power rates that he says drive many businesses away. The senator also blames Governor Jim Douglas – a fellow Republican – for failing to aggressively pursue the Connecticut River power deal.

(Illuzzi) “He essentially said the electricity business should be left to the private sector. And I submit to you that the private sector has a dismal record in managing Vermont’s demand for and price for electricity.”

(Dillon) The company that owns the six Connecticut River dams is in bankruptcy. And Illuzzi says that if the court clears the way for a sale, the state will only have 30 to 45 days to act. According to Illuzzi, Douglas campaigned on a promise to work for lower elected rates, but hasn’t followed through on the promise.

(Illuzzi) “Once he was elected we no longer hear about high electric rates. And we find by his words, if not his actions, he has essentially thrown in with the private electric utilities, investor owned utilities. And in my judgment, that is bad for the economy of the state of Vermont.”

(Dillon) Experts say the dams could sell for around $500 million, which is about equal to the state’s entire debt. Administration Secretary Michael Smith, who chairs the power authority, says with that much money involved, it makes sense to take a very careful look at the pros and cons of public ownership.

(Smith) “We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars here in terms of acquisition costs. And what the governor has always said is, we want to make sure where companies have gone bankrupt in the power industry – we want to make sure we don’t bankrupt the taxpayers of Vermont.”

(Dillon) PG&E National Energy Group, the company that owns the dams, also owns hydro projects in Massachusetts and fossil fuel plants in southern New England. Smith says there are many unanswered questions, including whether the Connecticut River dams will be sold separately or whether they’ll be lumped together for sale with the other power plants.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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