Vermont first bought power from Quebec a century ago. That trade relationship deepened in the 1980s when Gov. Richard Snelling negotiated with Quebec Premier Rene Levesque to secure the first of several long-term power deals.
This relationship remains strong between the cross-border neighbors and is one of the main focuses at Power from the North, a conference taking place at the University of Vermont on March 23 and 24. Richard Watts, director of the Center for Research on Vermont and one of the organizers of the conference, joined Vermont Edition to talk about the goals of the event.
Watts explains the origin of the energy relationship between Vermont and Quebec. “It’s an old story and it’s a story that’s very present today,” says Watts. “In the 1970s, the oil crisis, the embargo, drove up the prices of energy … and the governor who came into office in the late '70s, Richard Snelling, looked to the north for reliable, long-term, inexpensive electricity.” Watts says that at the same time, the premier of Quebec was looking to export some of the vast hydro resources that they had. Watts explains that Gov. Snelling famously had his staff learn French and instituted a series of negotiations that led to the first energy contracts for Vermont and New England.
Watts says that although there have been ups and downs to the rates of the long-term contract throughout the years, he thinks at this point it’s less expensive than other options. “Today, I think the story is that because of, or in part to, the long-term contract, we have lower electricity prices. And while other utilities in New England are in for rate hikes, Vermont and Green Mountain Power are in for rate decreases,” he says.
Watts says the goals of the conference are to explore the long-term energy relationship between Quebec and Vermont, examining the social, environmental and economic consequences, and to look to the future.
One of the consequences that has been illuminated from the beginning of the relationship is the displacement of indigenous people due to damming and increased production at Hydro-Quebec. “We have a speaker at this conference who represents the Inuit and the Cree, to some extent, and he talked at length this morning about those relationships. There have been negotiations and some agreements … It has achieved some degree of peace, but it remains an issue of some contention and controversy in Quebec,” says Watts.
Along with examining these issues, Watts says they hope to start a conversation at the conference about other New England states using hydropower. “In some ways the story of the past — a governor looking to the north, bringing hydro resources into Vermont and New England, building a new transmission line — is the story that’s happening again,” he says. He explains that states in southern New England are looking to reduce their reliance on natural gas and are de-carbonizing their electric systems. “Hydro could play a large role in that,” he says. “How does it get to southern New England, where would the transmission lines go, what would Vermont get out of it? Those are all questions we need to think about here in Vermont and I think those are some of the questions that are coming out in this forum today.”
At the end of the conference, Watts hopes to not only engage the panelists, but also the community and students involved. “We hope to tell the story, not only the story of the past, but what the story of the future might look like, and to do that we’re capturing as much as we can of what’s happening over these two days and we’ll make it available, accessible and transparent to the greater public,” he says.
Watts says he’s excited about the conversations he’s been hearing in the hallways since the conference started. “A whole lot of people are getting to meet each other," he says. "And I’m hearing a whole lot of French being spoken on the top floor of the Davis Center at UVM."