Power dynamics

August 16, 2003
By DAVID GRAM The Associated Press

CHARLOTTE — To Gary Parker, it was “pretty close to a miracle” that most of Vermont didn’t lose electricity Thursday when two major power lines feeding the state crashed.

Parker, vice president for engineering at the Vermont Electric Power Co., said hydropower, normally sparse when rivers go down in late summer, was plentiful due to the recent rains. Demand for power was just about average, he said.

The fact that Vermont was largely an island of light when power went out from New York to Ohio and into Canada hasn’t changed Parker’s belief that the major power line upgrade planned by his company between West Rutland and South Burlington is sorely needed.

“As the load grows over the next few years, the situation’s going to get worse and worse,” he said of the Vermont grid’s reliability.

Thursday’s outage didn’t change Sylvia Knight’s mind, either. The Charlotte resident, a critic of VELCO’s proposed Northwest Reliability Project, said she and others questioning the need for the power line upgrade had new cause to do so.

“They keep saying Vermont’s so vulnerable, that we’re the weakest point in the link,” Knight said. “I’m not so sure about that.”

VELCO, which handles bulk transmission of power to Vermont’s electric utilities, is proposing the Northwest Reliability Project, a $128 million effort that would affect 21 towns. It includes new and bigger power lines between West Rutland and Burlington, Barre and Williamstown, as well as improvements to 13 substations.

The Public Service Board is just beginning to investigate what would be the largest electric transmission project in Vermont in two decades. It held its first conference on the proposal last month and is expected to rule by next summer.

Between now and then, the board will have a host of concerns about the project to consider and VELCO will have dozens, if not hundreds, of critics to mollify. Among their concerns:

- Some of those who question whether tripling the size of current power lines is necessary argue that the region’s power needs could be met through conservation and small, local generation projects. VELCO says it studied conservation and new generation, and decided bigger transmission lines were the best alternative.

- There are worries about electromagnetic fields surrounding power lines. Critics point to a finding by the National Institute of Environmental Health Science that such fields are “possibly carcinogenic in humans.” The project’s backers say such a link has never been proved.

- Another environmental concern involves the chemicals used to treat wooden power poles and the possibility that they might leach out and cause health problems for people and wildlife nearby. Backers say steel poles could be used in sensitive areas.

- Some spectacular views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks – particularly from Charlotte and Shelburne – would be affected. An existing power line along most of the route has poles averaging just over 50 feet in height. The new line would require poles averaging 79 feet tall.

- Property owners all along the route would be affected by VELCO’s plan to accommodate the larger power line with a broader right of way.

Thomas Dunn, project manager and engineer with VELCO, said in an interview that Vermont’s summer peak load grew by nearly 10 percent in the three years from 1999 to 2002, to 1,023 megawatts _ roughly twice the output of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

About half the state’s power demand is in the region around Burlington, he said. The area currently is served by four power lines: one that generally follows the Interstate 89 corridor from the southeast; one that brings Canadian power south from Highgate; one that comes across Lake Champlain from New York; and one that brings power from the south via an existing line between New Haven and Essex.

If one line were out of service for repairs and a second went down in a storm, a widespread blackout could happen, Dunn said. “Such an outage, if it were to occur during peak summer conditions, could result in a blackout for over half of Vermont’s load ... and possibly cascade to other (neighboring) systems,” Dunn told the board in written testimony.

In Thursday’s outage, two of the four lines serving northwestern Vermont _ one each from New York and Quebec _ went out of service. But the peak summer conditions weren’t present, Parker said.

ISO New England, the Massachusetts-based organization that dispatches power around the region, has listed northwestern Vermont along with southwestern Connecticut and the area north of Boston as trouble areas where the power grid isn’t keeping pace with demand.

“We need to have higher capacity lines. That would be the solution,” said Dominic Slowey, spokesman for ISO New England.

VELCO has hired a “public outreach consultant” who has organized more than 100 meetings with local leaders and environmental and other groups to try to explain the need for the project. Still, questions abound.

Knight and her husband, Robert Wright, are worried about the anti-rot chemicals leaching from power poles into the Thorp Brook wetland in their town and threatening wildlife. “You wouldn’t want to be one of those critters drinking water that had come into contact” with the chemicals, said Wright, a University of Vermont math professor.

Wright wondered if steel poles might be used, to avoid the arsenic and creosote that are sometimes used to treat wooden poles.

Dunn said VELCO sometimes uses steel poles. “We have steel poles in our system. I’m not exactly sure whether this is an area where we think steel poles make sense.”

The question of whether steel poles might be used in the Charlotte wetland is just one of a host of unresolved issues all along the route.

Dunn noted that the project is currently expected to cross about 200 wetlands.

“There are many places where folks are going to be concerned,” he said. “We’re trying to work with towns and affected landowners to address their concerns or give them more information. We want to work with people to try to make the project fit better in their communities.

“There’s a lot on our plate to take care of right now.”