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Partnership pushes to start panel on hydropower cash

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership is pushing for the region to capitalize on an estimated $15 million accruing from the sale of excess electricity from the hydropower plant in Niagara Falls.

The cash has been piling up under a state law limiting how "proceeds" from the New York Power Authority's sale of unused or unallocated low-cost hydropower can be spent. The money is dedicated to supporting local economic growth.

But a board still needs to be chosen to advise the Power Authority on how to spend those funds. The Partnership is calling for those appointments to be made quickly.

The five-member panel, called the Western New York Power Proceeds Allocation Board, will be appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, with the State Senate and the Assembly each recommending one member. At least three of the five members must live within a 30-mile radius of the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston, and Cuomo will designate the board's chairman.

A state law passed with the budget this year -- which fixed problems with a law passed in 2010 -- covers proceeds of the sale of unallocated or unused Expansion Power and Replacement Power, two blocks of low-cost hydropower that support growth and expansion of area businesses.

The law requires directing the funds toward economic development within 30 miles of the Niagara Power Project. Previously, the Power Authority could spend those funds on projects anywhere in the state.

"This is a big deal that's taken a long time to get done, and it's a really good deal," Andrew J. Rudnick, the Partnership's president and CEO, said in a Monday meeting with The Buffalo News Editorial Board.

The net revenues, or proceeds, have been growing in a restricted Power Authority account since August 2010. Rudnick estimated that the total has risen to about $15 million, from $13 million at the start of 2012, and expects that it will grow annually by $7 million to $10 million, depending on how much power is sold and at what price.

"That's real money to begin with," Rudnick said. "It's also cash, and that's the most precious kind of economic-development tool that's available."

Rudnick said the Partnership will recommend that the funds be directed toward initiatives that lead to new or retained jobs and investment.

One restriction on the money: At least 15 percent of the total allocations each year must go toward energy-related projects.

Rudnick said he is optimistic that the Power Authority will be supportive of the proceeds allocation program, with Gil C. Quiniones as its president and CEO, and First Niagara Financial Group President and CEO John R. Koelmel poised to become its chairman.

"I do think there are indications that the [Power Authority] we have today and going forward will be more of a positive partner than it's been in the past," Rudnick said, "and it needs to be in order for this to be fully successful."