MYSTIC, Conn. (AP) – Gov. John G. Rowland says electricity will be the key issue as New England governors and eastern Canada premiers meet in their annual three-day conference.

Rowland said Sunday evening that his main concern is the overburdened system of power lines in southwestern Connecticut, which was the most affected region in the state during the massive Aug. 14 blackout that left 50 million people in the dark in sections of the Northeast, Midwest and Canada.

The 28th conference of governors and premiers kicked off Sunday night with a reception at the Mystic Marriott Hotel. Gov. John Baldacci of Maine is among those attending.

The business agenda was to begin Monday morning with presentations by officials with Northeast Utilities and the Independent System Operator-New England, the manager of the region’s power grid.

“We were able for the most part to escape the cascade,” Rowland said of the system-by-system power losses last month. “The question is going to become, what technologies are available to protect our grid?”

Rowland said the problem is not one of adequate power, but adequate transmission systems. He said a key issue is how the costs for power line upgrades will be absorbed.

NU has received approval from the Connecticut Siting Council to upgrade power lines from Bethel to Norwalk in the southwestern part of the state, but the project is on hold because of a lawsuit by Norwalk officials. NU also has plans to improve lines between Norwalk and Middletown.

Those lines would complete a loop around southwestern Connecticut, the area of the state with the greatest population concentration and demand for power.

Rowland said he hoped to work with the other governors and premiers to solve power problems in the state and region.

Rowland expected much of NU and ISO-New England’s presentations to be about how the electricity system works, because five of the six New England governors and the premier of Quebec are new to office since last year’s conference.

“It’s really an important first meeting for all these players,” Rowland said.

The governor said he and his colleagues can wield power by making deals between states and lobbying the president.

Canadian Ambassador Michael Kergin said last week that the main goal of the conference is to solidify relationships between U.S. and Canadian leaders. But he also said last month’s power outage will be discussed as both countries come to grips with possible system improvements.

“We’re a huge supplier of energy (to the U.S.) and it’s important that there is a reliability of supply,” said Kergin. “We want to keep the customer happy.”

There were several issues on the agenda for Monday and Tuesday, including border security, trade, pharmaceutical research, information technology and biotechnology.

Kergin and the U.S. ambassador to Canada, A. Paul Cellucci, were expected to discuss border security and trade issues with the governors and premiers on Monday afternoon.

Several resolutions were up for potential votes, including ones on cooperation by states on border security, linking greenways and bike paths on either side of the U.S.-Canada border, expanding interstate collaborative research and strengthening state computer networks for “e-learning” in local school systems.

AP-ES-09-07-03 2215EDT

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