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State official to tour Canadian hydro plants

The top energy official for Massachusetts heads to Canada on Sunday for a tour of massive hydroelectricity dams in Newfoundland, Labrador, and Quebec as way to cement the state’s interest in importing more power from the generating stations.

The trip by Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard K. Sullivan Jr. comes just a few months after several New England leaders, including Governor Deval Patrick, unveiled a shared initiative to bring more hydropower into the region. Sullivan will visit facilities owned by Nalcor Energy and Hydro-Quebec early next week, then join Patrick on a longer trade mission to Canada.

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The goal of the trip, Sullivan said, “is to express the governor’s interest, the Commonwealth’s interest in having [hydropower] be part of the energy mix of the future.”

Sullivan said the state views hydropower as a cheap, clean energy source that could not only help Massachusetts achieve its aggressive goals to use more renewable power and lower greenhouse-gas emissions, but also help lower the region’s energy prices. Additional hydropower would also help increase diversity in fuel sources.

In recent years, natural gas has become the dominant fuel for power generation in New England, making the region vulnerable to supply disruptions and price spikes. Natural gas fuels nearly 46 percent of New England’s electricity generation, and in Massachusetts the figure is nearly 65 percent.

Hydropower accounts for less than 4 percent of net electricity generation in Massachusetts.

But environmentalists and some industry officials worry that an influx of cheap hydropower could undermine efforts to develop new technologies like wind and solar.

In addition, the transmission system needed to bring hydropower south is also a big concern, particularly with some proposals extending lines through environmentally sensitive areas. Any new transmission infrastructure, environmental advocates say, must be carefully considered to avoid harm to natural resources and ensure it is compatible with alternative energy sources.

Sullivan said Massachusetts officials recognize there is much planning to be done and discussions to be held with the region’s grid operator, ISO New England, local utilities, and other parties before any decisions are made.

“We’ve been clear that the state has an interest in large-scale hydro, but it is not project specific in terms of what projects might ultimately end up being the successful supplier,” he said. “We’re not going to come back with a contract — that’s not the purpose of the trip.”

Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, a trade group representing plant owners, said hydropower should be part of the region’s energy mix, as long as it isn’t given preferential treatment over other options.

He urged state leaders to maintain a level playing field, rather than promoting a select few with subsidies or other incentives.

Paul Gaynor, chief executive of Boston-based wind and solar development firm First Wind, said he supports the state’s efforts to diversify the region’s energy mix.

“Hydropower can complement other renewable resources, such as wind and solar energy,” Gaynor said, “and we believe it is certainly worth studying to determine how these clean energy resources can work together to benefit the region, ratepayers, and the environment.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.

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