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Should The State Make A Bid For Connecticut River Hydro System? Lawmaker Says 'Yes'

Toby Talbot
These power stations on the Connecticut River are for sale as part of the TransCanada hydro system. Lawmakers are now discussing whether or not the state should purchase the dams.

International energy giant TransCanada says it wants to sell its series of power dams on the Connecticut River. And House Speaker Shap Smith and other lawmakers think the state should consider purchasing the power generating hydro system.

The hydro system includes dams in Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon. The last time the dams changed hands the state of Vermont considered purchasing the renewable energy source.

The previous owner of the almost 500-megawatt hydro system was USGen New England, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003.

The state created the Vermont Hydroelectric Authority at the time to take a look at the dams, but in the end, Vermont was outbid by TransCanada.

Now TransCanada says it wants to sell its Connecticut River hydro assets. Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, says he's going to talk to his fellow lawmakers about the pending sale.

"I think the state ought to buy them," Deen says. "I mean this is the largest hydroelectric facility in New England. So, yeah, I think it'd be a good idea, but that's me."

Deen is chairman of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, and he's also the Upper Valley River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council.

"I think the state ought to buy them. I mean this is the largest hydroelectric facility in New England. So, yeah, I think it'd be a good idea." — Rep. David Deen, chairman of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee

House Speaker Shap Smith says the state should look into buying the dams, saying the state missed an opportunity 11 years ago.

“In 2005, the State of Vermont failed to acquire dams along the Connecticut River," Smith said in a statement. "I believe our failure to do so was a missed opportunity that impacted Vermont’s clean energy portfolio and regional economic development opportunities. With the news that TransCanada is putting these assets on the market, I am committed to working with the administration, treasurer, and other stakeholders to assess the potential purchase of this renewable resource. We must undertake a full review of how the purchase of these dams could impact Vermont’s clean energy future and economic development.”

The hydro system includes miles of protected wildlife resources, which the owner of the hydro system manages.

Deen says he was surprised at TransCanada's announcement. And a state acquisition might be a long shot because Deen says there could be buyer already lined up.

"I have no idea what the timing on this sale is," says Deen. "These things could sell tomorrow. I'm certainly going to talk to my fellow House members about it. And actually, we already have. Everybody remembers that we came close to buying these dams last time they were on the market."

TransCanada announced just this month that it wanted to buy 15,000 miles of natural gas pipeline for about $10 billion, and the deal is being partly financed through the sales of its northeast power assets.

The company is also currently in the middle of relicensing the dams with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Deen says the relicensing will proceed in spite of the pending sale.

Update March 29, 2016, 1:32 pm. The story was updated to reflect House Speaker Shap Smith's position on the state purchase of the Connecticut River dams. 

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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