The Burlington Electric Department is considering signing a long-term power contract with Hydro-Quebec. A special meeting convenes at 4 p.m. on Tuesday seeking ratepayer input on the question.
"A deal should be resolved sometime very soon," said Daniel Shearer, chairman of the BED commission. "Anticipating that, we wanted to make sure that the public could give us feedback before we decide whether to vote yes or not on it."
BED is one of the few utilities in Vermont that did not sign a power contract with Hydro-Quebec back in the early 1990s after voters rejected the deal at the polls.
This year, Vermont lawmakers designated power from the provincial utility "renewable." Vermont is the first such state to give HQ that designation, and it could help the utility gain access to the lucrative power markets in southern New England. Prior to the designation, hydropower projects greater than 200 MW were not considered renewable, given the impact that flooding can have on the environment, and in the case of HQ, indigenous peoples' ancestral hunting and fishing grounds.
Opponents of the designation claim that granting "renewable" status to large-scale hydro projects remains misplaced, given their impacts on the environment and the lands and way of life of indigenous people.
Concern over the impact on the native Cree of northern Quebec fueled opposition to the original Hydro-Quebec contract, but the Cree have since negotiated deals that have largely benefited their tribes and allowed them to invest millions of dollars in public works projects.
The state's other major utilities — including its two largest Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power — are in talks with HQ about a new power deal. Designating HQ's power was seen as a crucial bargaining chip for the utilities to strike a good deal.
During the legislative session, the Vermont Natural Resources Council opposed the designation of large hydro, like Hydro-Quebec, as "renewable" because of large hydro's big environmental impacts.
"BED has been a leader in promoting energy efficiency and advancing innovative programs like PACE. The fact is, HQ is a part of our energy mix in Vermont. Our concern is less with the purchase of the power and more with the legislature's designation of it as renewable because of its significant environmental impacts," said Jake Brown, VNRC's communications director.
That designation was part of a bill that changed other portions of the state's renewable energy laws, and was the last that Gov. Jim Douglas signed into law as governor.
Against that backdrop, BED has decided to ask Burlington ratepayers about whether it, too, should join with other Vermont utilities and sign onto a contract with Hydro-Quebec.
If the commission were to vote in favor of signing onto a Hydro-Quebec contract, it wouldn't be automatic, said BED commission chairman Shearer. Before any deal could take effect, it would have to be approved by the city council, Vermont's Public Service Board and Burlington voters.
In 1990, voters rejected signing onto the Hydro-Quebec deal after first approving the deal. During the first vote, flyers posted in the voting booths by BED only portrayed the positives behind the deal. A judge ruled that violated the state's elections laws and a revote was ordered.
The rejection helped thwart some of Hydro-Quebec's plans to dam rivers in Northern Quebec and helped the Cree gain the upper hand at the bargaining table. And, the rejection also forced BED to focus on investing in local renewable development and conservation, a move that has put BED ahead of other utilities in Vermont.
In fact, until this year Burlington electricity consumers had not consumed more power than they had in 1989.
Shearer said signing onto a Hydro-Quebec contract would not erase those efforts. In fact, he said it could help the city further green its energy portfolio — something its ratepayers continue to support. But, should Burlington ratepayers buy into the designation of HQ power as "renewable"?
As of Friday, Shearer said, only about 20 people had emailed BED about the potential HQ deal. The split was about even between supporters and opponents, said Shearer.
"What everyone is saying, however, is that they want BED to have a cleaner, more renewable and socially conscious portfolio," said Shearer.
Whether HQ's power meets those standards, however, is what will be up for debate.
This is the note BED sent last week to ratepayers via Front Porch Forum:
Dear Burlington Electric customers,
Thanks to everyone who has submitted their thoughts as Burlington Electric Department participates with other utilities around the state in discussions regarding a contract to purchase electricity from Hydro-Quebec. Your feedback is valuable to the commission and staff. If you have not had the opportunity to comment, we encourage you to send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. All are welcome at the special meeting of the Burlington Electric Commission on June 29th at 4 p.m. (585 Pine Street).
To add further details regarding the potential to purchase electricity from Hydro-Quebec, we want to be clear that Hydro-Quebec generates its power from a variety of sources including (based on data from 2007) 92% from hydroelectric dams, 3% from nuclear plants, 2.5% from natural gas plants, 1% from coal plants, 1% from wind and other non-hydro renewable resources, and the remaining 0.5% from oil and other fuels. While the power coming to Vermont utilities would be primarily hydroelectric based, it is possible that other fuel sources could be included in the energy portfolio.
This potential opportunity to obtain 10% to 15% of Burlington's electricity from Hydro-Quebec could replace a substantial amount of our short-term contracts with the New England Market, composed primarily of gas, nuclear, coal, and oil generation and/or it would replace other long-term contracts from renewable energy providers that BED has been pursuing, which could be more expensive. You can learn more about BED's current energy portfolio here:
and its plans for future electricity supply here:
We look forward to hearing from you as we investigate this possible contract.