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Proposed transmission line viewed as threat to upstate jobs

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has joined State Sen. George Maziarz, chairman of the Senate's energy committee, in arguing that a $2 billion underground electrical transmission line from Quebec to New York City will endanger energy industry jobs throughout upstate New York.

The line, the Champlain Hudson Power Express, is being financed by the Blackstone Group, a New York City private equity firm that wants to take cheap electricity generated by Quebec's hydropower plants to the costly New York City market.

Although the plan supplies much-needed "clean" electricity to the city, bypassing bottlenecks in the state's antiquated transmission system, the union and Maziarz say the state needs to focus on upgrading and rebuilding the system, an effort that would also create jobs.

Both IBEW Local 97 in Syracuse, which represents 4,700 utility and power plant workers, and Maziarz have focused their efforts on the state Public Service Commission, which is being asked to approve the line's construction by its Albany-based developers.

New York's transmission system, which is owned largely by various regional utilities, does not have enough capacity between Utica and Albany and south of Albany to send all the power generated in upstate power plants to where it is needed most in places such as Manhattan and Long Island. The Champlain Hudson line is a direct-current line that cannot connect to existing transmission lines in the state, essentially making it a 350-mile "extension cord," according to union officials.

The massive losses of power along these bottlenecks prevent cheaper upstate electricity from getting to the downstate market, and it also reduces the value of the upstate plants. What to do with the transmission system -- and how to modernize it -- is expected to be a major part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's energy strategy in the coming year. IBEW Local 97 believes that if transmission line modernization becomes a major state priority, then power plant developers will begin investing in upstate facilities, many of which are underutilized because of the congestion problem.

"Thousands of additional jobs will occur in power generation from within New York State when power generation developers receive a signal that the transmission issue -- and thus the ability to get their product to market -- will be addressed," IBEW Local 97 President Theodore Skerpon wrote PSC Chairman Garry Brown on Dec. 22.

Meanwhile, Maziarz says he's considering holding a Senate hearing on the Champlain Hudson project, a move that would put additional pressure on the PSC. "I'm leaning toward it," Maziarz said. "But I probably will want to talk to the other committee members first."

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