Wednesday, October 01, 2003

IT'S MY TURN: New lines vital for reliable power

By Doug Griswold

When I wake up each morning, I assume that the coffee maker will start, that I will get the morning news on TV, that the lights will go on and the microwave will work. I assume that when I get to my office the computers, copiers and fax machines will be running.
It's only after a storm and a power outage that I realize how much we take electricity for granted.
Thanks to the good work and foresight by the folks at the utility companies, Vermont has had remarkably reliable power, even this past August when half of the Northeast was without electricity for as much as 14 hours.
Why didn't our power fail then?
The truth is, part of it was foresight and part of it was we were just plain lucky. Our system is stressed -- in fact, it is one of the two most-stressed systems in New England. Our transmission lines have not been upgraded in 30 years. Yet, since 1980 the number of houses served by my electric company has gone from 51,288 to 73,861. The number of small businesses has gone from 7,077 to 13,173. If we want businesses to continue to grow, we are going to need to be able to assure that the lights will go on and that e-mail will work.
How do we do this? In my town of Charlotte there has been some controversy over the new transmission lines VELCO is proposing -- specifically, concern over what the wooden poles will look like and how the upgraded lines will affect everything from aesthetics to health to property values. These are good concerns, ones that we need to bring up, and ones that VELCO has been open about addressing.
But there have also been a number of alternate proposals, such as "Can't we solve this problem by just being more efficient in our electric usage?" The answer, ideally, would be yes. Yet efficiency alone is not enough. As a builder, I know that homes today -- even with all the new appliances -- are far more efficient than they were ten years ago. In fact, the average electric usage has gone down in the last 20 years, from 9,377 kwh to 7,491 kwh.
People have also suggested that we put the power lines underground. I would support this wholeheartedly, but I also understand that this would cost Vermont eight to 10 times what it will cost to upgrade the overhead lines. Right now, for a small window of time, New England will pick up the majority of the cost to upgrade the lines. If VELCO has these lines upgraded by 2007, Vermont will pay only 5 percent of the cost. If we were to put lines underground, we would pay 100 percent.
Still others are opposed to the upgrades because they see them as paving the way for more development. Our system is at capacity right now. Growth in power doesn't mean growth in people. Right now, there is a housing shortage in Chittenden County of 3,000 to 5,000 units. This is driving the cost of housing up and, in some instance, forcing those in the lower income brackets to move. I've lived in Vermont my whole life and hate it when I see people forced to sell the property they grew up on.
We need inexpensive, reliable power to make Vermont affordable for everyone. We need it to help our economy grow and so that we can continue to provide jobs. We need it to maintain our quality of life and to assure that health care, education and government services are not interrupted. If a wooden utility pole is 10 feet higher, I can live with that. What I can't live without is reliable power.
So until the new transmission lines are in, I think I'll hold on to my generator.

Doug Griswold is president of the construction company S.T. Griswold & Co. and a member of the Vermont Business Roundtable.