Thursday, April 15, 2004

Conserve power before building lines

Mark Sinclair

The reliability of Vermont's electric supply, often taken for granted, is now a matter of intense debate. Increased summertime electricity use in Chittenden County is taxing our grid.
VELCO, the state's transmission company, proposes to triple the capacity of the transmission system to Northwest Vermont, arguing that new wires are the only answer to keep the lights on. Recently, The Burlington Free Press joined the stampede to transmission expansion, declaring that, without the VELCO project, "Vermont will not have the reliable power network necessary to keep homes lighted and businesses humming" (editorial, April 4).
Before we rush to judgment, however, let's tease some truth out of all the opinion.
First, the lights are not about to go out. Northwest Vermont has been living for many years with a grid that is occasionally strained during summer peak periods -- but we are not facing system failure or dire economic consequences.
Instead, during a few hours of a few days in summer, Chittenden County's increasing use of air conditioning could potentially result in some load shedding under the highly unusual circumstance that local generators and key transmission lines go out simultaneously.
This is not to suggest that Vermont should not make strategic investments in our transmission system. But we have time to consider carefully whether energy conservation and local generation are better solutions than merely building more wires.
VELCO's proposal also is not economically smart. Rather, slowing Vermont's energy use through increased investment in efficiency and building clean, small-scale generation would be less expensive (and more reliable) than constructing a fifth major transmission corridor into Burlington.
Who says so? VELCO does!
In filings before the Public Service Board, VELCO confirmed that a strategy of increasing conservation and local power production would cost less than the transmission project while resulting in nearly $600 million in greater societal benefits, mostly from avoided power costs. In fact, VELCO found that a targeted energy efficiency program could eliminate the need for the proposed 345-kilovolt line, and lower electric bills. Conclusion: efficiency is good business, especially in this time of rising fuel costs.
Local power production also is a better solution. Vermont sends more than $1 billion each year out of state to buy energy. The VELCO project will continue this trend, by constructing a giant extension cord to southern New England for importing expensive gas-fired power. Investment in local generation -- such as combined heat and power plants at the University of Vermont and IBM -- would improve reliability, eliminate costly transmission losses, and keep Vermont's energy dollars at home.
But if efficiency and local generation are so cost-effective, why isn't VELCO proposing them? Simple -- VELCO's utility owners experience profits only if they sell more power. Expecting them to help Vermonters use less energy is like expecting credit card companies to help a shopping addict buy less.
VELCO also suggests that its $150 million transmission project is a free lunch as most of the costs will be paid by all New England's ratepayers. What VELCO doesn't emphasize is that Vermonters then must help pay for all the other gold-plated transmission expansion proposals in the region, from Connecticut to Maine, with cost estimates approaching $2 billion.
So what's the right investment for Vermont? Instead of more wires, we deserve a 21st century electric system -- one that is more independent, and focused on efficient delivery of energy services, rather than simply moving the most electrons from place to place.
Such a system would reduce the strain on the grid through conservation, help Vermont businesses lower energy costs (for example, why not ask big box stores to turn down their air conditioners a degree or two during heat waves) and encourage the development of smallscale generation.
Now that would truly keep the lights on and the local economy humming.
Mark Sinclair is director of the Conservation Law Foundation's Vermont Advocacy Center in Montpelier.