Burlington Free Press
Commentary

Let's avoid unnecessary transmission lines
June 6, 2004

By Richard Sedano, Regulatory Assistance Project

Mary Powell of Green Mountain Power and Mark Sinclair of The Conservation Law Foundation have articulated on this page the basic opposing views of the proposal by the Vermont Electric Power Company to build a major electric transmission project in Rutland, Addison and Chittenden Counties. Load growth and missed opportunities for local efficiency and generation are causing this project, and investments in these resources are the superior course, says Mark. Reliability is job one, this project provides critical support to the grid, and local resources are unsuitable to rely on in this case for this vital task, says Mary.

I am confident that the expert testimony delivering these views to the Public Service Board will enable a good decision.

I am less confident that Vermont is learning anything from this experience, and I despair that we may be missing opportunities that could avoid this same situation in the same place 10-15 years in the future. Those interested in slowing the need for more transmission construction, read on.

‘Need’ is a magic word in transmission siting. If a project is needed, we better see it built because the alternative is unreliable electricity. But ‘need’ is sometimes confused by all of us with ‘want,’ or ‘prefer.’ As in, a transmission company may want to build transmission to solve a grid problem, or prefer transmission to other alternatives because it better understands its qualities.

The PSB will decide if Vermont needs to current proposal to meet reliability standards. But the obvious question is: if the current system was OK, say 15 years ago, when peak demand in the summer was less than 800 MegaWatts, is the reason it is not OK today is because summer loads exceed 1000 MW and appear on their way toward 1200 MW?

The trend of growth in electric demand in the summer should concern all Vermonters because we will all feel the effects, though some more than others. These effects include bearing the economic and environmental costs of big assets. Let’s project ahead again 15 years to see how those effects can be managed.

If Vermont’s summer peak load gets to 1300-1400 MW, as VELCO forecasts it might by the end of the next decade (when Vermont will likely have to bear a bigger portion of the project costs than it does today, due to regional changes beyond Vermont’s control), then Vermont will have done nothing more to check the significant growth driven by more buildings, and the need to keep occupants comfortable. Some significant additional transmission facilities would likely be required. Perhaps upgrading the line from New Haven to Essex (the one that passes through Monkton, the Kwiniaska Golf Course, and Maple Tree Place), and or the now well-hidden line that follows I89 from Barre-Montpelier to Essex.

My question: why can’t we stop the growth of the demand on the electric grid right now?

Regulation in Vermont has a critical disconnect. Vermont’s 21 distribution companies, including GMP and BED, are responsible for all resource planning. VELCO is responsible for transmission planning and construction. Neither take full responsibility for planning and investing in resources that can avoid the need for large transmission projects.

An alternative: distribution company long term resource plans, which the law requires every three years, should explicitly reflect potential transmission construction, and present alternatives that may avoid or delay that construction. Then, there can be a debate with adequate time to make good decisions and engage affected citizens. Based on my conversations with citizens affected by the VELCO project, more engagement has value.

This will require cooperation between VELCO and the companies to be closer and more creative than it is now. Ultimately, it should be the distribution companies that have final responsibility to procure resources to serve us, including transmission, generation, and efficiency.

There is no affordable transmission system that can protect against a blackout with 100% certainty. The industry at-large is learning about how local resources can provide significant reliability value. Vermont has often been pragmatic about electric resources in the past. Attention to avoiding unnecessary transmission lines may be a new way to focus that pragmatic spirit.