Douglas administration supports power line upgrades
By David Gram, Associated Press Writer, 12/17/2003

MONTPELIER, Vt. -- The Douglas administration on Wednesday came out formally in support of a $128 million power line upgrade to bring more electricity to fast-growing northwestern Vermont.

While it said it had some concerns about the aesthetic impacts of the project in specific areas, the Department of Public Service, which is responsible for representing ratepayers in utility matters, told the Public Service Board that the project should be approved.

"Our first priority in evaluating the NRP (Northwest Reliability Project) was to be assured of reliability for Vermont's electric grid," said David O'Brien, the department's commissioner.

The project includes a new, high-capacity transmission line between West Rutland and New Haven; upgrading existing power lines from New Haven to South Burlington and expanding 12 power substations owned by Green Mountain Power Corp. and Vermont Electric Power Corp., the statewide transmission company that is spearheading the project.

The Health Department also gave its stamp of approval for the project in testimony filed at the Public Service Board. It filed a position paper designed to address public concerns about the health effects of electromagnetic fields from power lines, which one federal agency has identified as a possible human carcinogen.

The Health Department noted there are no state or federal safety standards to offer guidance on exposure to the magnetic fields. It said exposures expected from the project would be 20 to 200 times lower than international standards.

O'Brien said the department tried to incorporate public concerns as it reviewed the project.

"Although DPS concluded that the NRP is the best solution, our in-depth review of the project led to numerous recommendations to address design weaknesses and concerns about aesthetics and noise," O'Brien said. "Our experts used the public's input to make recommendations that will improve the end result."

One recommendation the department is saying should be ignored is that by a consultant retained by VELCO. That company, Optimal Energy, said the need for the line could be negated through aggressive energy conservation measures and possibly through the construction of new generating stations in northwestern Vermont.

That idea was seconded by another energy consultant who has done work for DPS in the past. Providing written testimony to the Public Service Board on behalf of the Conservation Law Foundation, Paul Chernick of Cambridge, Mass.-based Resource Insight said Vermont could save $500 million in the long run by pursuing the path of energy efficiency and local generation versus the power line upgrade.

Chernick criticized VELCO for not addressing the problem of growing demand sooner. "To the extent that the situation is anything close to the emergency VELCO portrays, that situation is largely due to VELCO's delay in addressing a problem that has been developing for decades," he said in his written testimony.

Wednesday was a deadline for parties in the case to file their responses to VELCO's proposal. Several of the towns along the route weighed in. New Haven, where a major switching station would connect a line leading a new line from West Rutland with newly upgraded lines farther north to South Burlington, expressed strong opposition.

The towns of Shelburne and Charlotte and the city of Vergennes all said they could live with the new power lines provided their configuration were changed, said Joseph McLean, a Burlington lawyer representing those communities.

Charlotte wants the lines buried underground, a position the Department of Public Service says is impractical given the cost of construction and the difficulty of fixing problems that could develop with the lines.

Shelburne wants part of the power line buried and other parts rerouted, McLean said.

Vergennes also wants the line rerouted -- away from the Otter Creek falls, which are in the center of the tiny city and figure largely in its revitalization plans, McLean said.