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Officials support 

SOMERSET – Business and labor officials agreed Tuesday that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposal to build new electricity lines to send locally produced power downstate would be preferable to importing that electricity from Canada.

The statements were made at a hearing in Somerset Town Hall held by the State Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee.

Its chairman, Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, set up the hearing a few miles from the struggling coal-fired Upstate Power Producers plant, formerly owned by AES Corp. until its subsidiary, AES Eastern Energy, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection at the end of 2011.

The 675-megawatt plant eventually fell into the hands of a consortium of bondholders led by major U.S. and foreign banks.

Maziarz said he supports Cuomo's $2.5 billion proposal for an "electricity highway" that would make it easier for local power producers to send electricity to eastern and southern New York, where power demand continues to increase.

An alternative means of supplying more electricity to the New York City market is the so-called Champlain-Hudson Power Express, a cable to be laid beneath Lake Champlain and the Hudson River to carry hydroelectric power produced by Hydro Quebec to the Big Apple.

Rick Gonzalez of the New York Independent System Operator said the state desperately needs to modernize its existing electric transmission system. They said Cuomo's plan – supported by the New York Power Authority, the Long Island Power Authority and all of the state investor-owned utilities – would do that.

"There are currently sufficient facilities to meet New York State's demands," Gonzalez said. The problem, he said, is transmission bottlenecks on the oldest power lines.

Maziarz said he's sponsoring a bill that would make it illegal for Transmission Developers Inc., the company promoting the line from Quebec, to utilize eminent domain powers over land along its path. Maziarz believes passing such a bill would sink that project, which is bankrolled in large part by Blackstone Group, a New York City private equity firm.

"Importing power from Canada is sort of like the Walmart theory of low-ball prices," Maziarz said in an interview. "Eventually, it'll raise rates."

Ken Pokalsky of the Business Council of New York said at the hearing that the state's largest business group supports the "electricity highway" from Western New York and opposes the Champlain-Hudson project.

The latter, he said, "would circumvent rather than improve the state's transmission system."

Michael Lutz, president of Local 966, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents employees at the Somerset plant, said the electricity highway plan "has brought together some strange bedfellows."

But Lutz said it would solve "Somerset's problem of not being able to move its power where it's needed in the state."

Maziarz said the in-state plan would make it more economically feasible for smaller coal-fired plants in Dunkirk and the Town of Tonawanda, owned by NRG Energy, to convert to cheaper natural gas.