Burlington May Reverse Ban On Hydro-Quebec Power

04/13/10 7:34AM By John Dillon

AP Photo/Jeffrey Ulbrich
In this Aug. 8, 1990 file photo, part of Hydro-Quebec's James Bay project is seen.

(Host) The publicly owned utility in Vermont's largest city may reverse its longstanding ban on buying electricity from Hydro-Quebec.

As VPR's John Dillon reports, the decision may hinge on the definition of "renewable energy."

(Dillon) Twenty years ago Burlington voters rejected a contract with Hydro-Quebec because of concern that the large dams in northern Canada hurt the environment and displaced native people.

Back then, public opinion had turned against the provincial utility. New York state had also cancelled a large power contract with Hydro-Quebec because of a campaign led by environmentalists. A power deal with Vermont companies was also controversial but it was ultimately approved.

But in recent years, as the world worries about climate change, Hydro-Quebec has worked to position itself as a green, low carbon, renewable energy source.

Barbara Grimes is Burlington Electric's general manager. She said she'll brief the city electric commission this week on a recent agreement between Hydro-Quebec and Vermont's two largest utilities.

(Grimes) "Now that we understand better the parameters of the contract, I will be informing the commission of what the deal is, and whether there's an interest. There had been more or less an unspoken disinterest with previous commissions."

(Dillon) After Burlington voters rejected the Hydro-Quebec deal in 1990, the city approved an $11 million bond to invest in energy efficiency programs.

Grimes said the Burlington Electric Commission later instituted a policy to meet the rest of its energy needs through renewable resources. She said one issue on the table this week is whether Hydro-Quebec power should be considered renewable.

(Grimes) "I'm still under a previous commission vote that wanted BED to be 100 percent renewable over the next several years. And BED has not considered Hydro-Quebec to be renewable, clearly low carbon, but not renewable. So I thought it was a good opportunity to have a discussion with the commission."

(Dillon) BED officials said a city-wide vote would not be required to change the utility's policy on renewables.

Under current Vermont law, electricity from large dams is also not legally defined as renewable. Hydro-Quebec and Vermont utilities have been lobbying the Legislature to change the definition.

But that worries some environmentalists who campaigned hard against Hydro-Quebec in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Alexis Lathem is a Richmond resident who was deeply involved in the earlier controversy over Hydro-Quebec.

(Lathem) "There's nothing that has changed. I mean, all the reasons why Burlington had decided not to import power from Hydro-Quebec - all those reasons still exist. A lot of people have forgotten because it hasn't been much talked about, but Hydro-Quebec is continuing to build dams. They're building a major dam on the Romaine River right now. They're building a major dam on the Eastmain and Rupert Rivers, which are both rivers, which people had fought so hard to save back in the ‘90s."

(Dillon) Lathem said if Vermont buys more electricity from Hydro-Quebec the state will simply export the impacts of its energy demand to the far north.

Burlington Electric officials say if the city does buy Hydro-Quebec power, it would get a portion of the electricity that Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power have already agreed to import from Quebec.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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