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Energy summit highlights disagreements, potential of power plan

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This much, all sides can agree on: New York’s aging electric grid needs billions of dollars worth of upgrades.

And everybody involved in the debate agrees, too, that improvements to the system will create jobs in upstate New York — in construction that will last years and in the permanent additional power projects that could flourish if electricity is able to move more swiftly from one part of the state to another.

But the potential for debate rises when the discussion boils down to details, especially one big question: What would happen if the state constructed an electricity pipeline from Quebec to New York City?

“We’re very excited that the governor has brought this to light,” said Michael Malek, the business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2032 in Massena. “If we’re going to do it, we need to do it right.”

Union officials such as Mr. Malek are concerned that if 3,000 megawatts of power are piped in from Quebec, power projects in the north country will flounder and persistent “bottleneck” issues in other parts of the electric grid will go unaddressed.

But those involved with that effort discount such concerns, calling for an “all of the above” approach.

To be sure, the Quebec-to-New York City pipeline is only one idea out of many that will be considered in the coming weeks and months. The state’s effort — launched by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and dubbed the “Energy Highway” — is not yet completed. A task force met Wednesday at Columbia University in New York City and will send a “request for information” on Wednesday. Anthony G. Collins, the president of Clarkson University in Potsdam, moderated a panel on renewable energy for the task force.

“Of course, people have concerns. They need to be involved,” Mr. Collins said. “I think they should be optimistic.”

Mr. Collins called the effort a “major step forward” for New York’s electricity system.

“It’s aging, it’s inefficient and in many ways, it’s not doing what it’s needed as a grid to carry power from the existing sources, including the Niagara and St. Lawrence-FDR projects, to downstate,” Mr. Collins said. The system also will be upgraded “to be able to add renewable sources like wind and solar energy into the system.”

Mr. Cuomo’s goal is to use private capital for the $2 billion undertaking.

Mr. Collins said the improvements will enhance the fortunes of power projects in every part of the state.

“Time and again through the conference, it must have been the most often repeated phrase: All of the above,” he said. “The solutions to New York’s energy and the redesign of the energy highway is going to require answers from every sector.”

But the request for information is likely to provoke some dissent, particularly when it comes to the potential Quebec-to-New York City power line. Some are concerned that the market will be diluted with an influx of power from Hydro-Quebec, a government-run hydropower plant.

“I am worried that bringing in that amount of energy into the state will have a chilling effect on the investments in energy production facilities in the north country, including proposed biomass facilities and solar facilities,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. “I am concerned that we could lose jobs if we bring in 3,000 megawatts of power into the state.”

Energy projects in the north country include biomass facilities planned in Ogdensburg and at Fort Drum and myriad wind power projects in differing stages of contemplation.

Mr. Malek, the union official, said if there’s too much focus on the power line from Quebec, other parts of the state could fall by the wayside.

“If that line runs from Hydro-Quebec to New York City, it could possibly curtail the needed upgrading that has to go on in Northern New York and to deal with the further congestion,” he said.

But back to the things on which all sides agree: The plan has the potential to create jobs.

“Our position is to advise whatever we can and assist wherever we could be helpful, to promote and help keep people working,” Mr. Malek said.

Said Mr. Cuomo in a news release after the summit: “The Energy Highway initiative will ensure that New Yorkers have reliable, affordable, clean power to meet the electricity needs of a strong and growing economy. The Energy Highway project has the potential to create thousands of jobs and stimulate billions of dollars in private investment in order to rebuild New York’s energy infrastructure.”

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