Power line plan praised, criticized to committee
By David Gram, Associated Press Writer, 1/28/2004

MONTPELIER, Vt. -- Audri Miller said her good friend Rose Jeffries would have come Tuesday to testify to a Senate committee about health concerns connected with high-voltage electric transmission lines.

"Rose cannot be here, because she has passed away from bladder cancer," the second-grade teacher at the Monkton Central School told the Senate Finance Committee.

Another neighbor wanted to testify as well, "but she can't," Miller said. "She is too exhausted from her breast cancer treatments to travel across the state."

Still another potential witness to bad health effects they attribute to living too close to power lines couldn't make it, either. "She is traveling back and forth to the Dana Farber Institute, receiving chemotherapy for her lymphoma," Miller said.

Miller's testimony may have been the most striking during a long afternoon of testimony from supporters and opponents of a plan by Vermont's high-voltage transmission utility, Vermont Electric Power Corp., to spend $128 million for a major power line upgrade to serve fast-growing northwestern Vermont.

VELCO has argued that links between high-voltage lines have not been proven. But project opponents note that national and international scientific bodies have described the electromagnetic fields put off by power lines as possible human carcinogens.

Lisa Ventriss, speaking for the Vermont Business Roundtable and the Coalition for Reliable Power, said that group of 5,800 Vermont businesses strongly support the power line upgrade as a way to ensure the reliability of Vermont's electric grid.

Ventriss echoed a VELCO official who earlier in the afternoon had likened the company's transmission grid to Vermont's interstate highways, and the state's distribution utilities to its networks of smaller roads.

Ventriss noted that Vermont had grown significantly since the days when Routes 7, 100 and 5 were the major roads into the state from the south. "Without the (interstate) highway system to accommodate that increased flow, we would be seriously jeopardizing the economic well being of the state," she said.

VELCO wants to triple the capacity of a 35.5-mile transmission line between West Rutland and New Haven, from 115 to 345 kilovolts. From New Haven, the existing 115-kv line would continue to carry power to a substation in Essex.

Also from the New Haven substation, a new power line would cut northwesterly through Waltham and Vergennes and then follow the Lake Champlain shore north through Ferrisburgh, Charlotte and Shelburne -- mainly along the route of a smaller, existing power line -- before connecting with the Queen City substation in South Burlington.

The proposal is currently pending before the Public Service Board, and the committee's chairwoman, Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, was quick to say she wanted a broader discussion. The hearing would be about getting "information about transmission, the issues, what's out there, the costs," she said before it got under way.

But it was clear from the outset that most of those testifying wanted to talk about the VELCO proposal. The committee heard from VELCO engineer and project manager Thomas Dunn, and from David O'Brien, commissioner of the Department of Public Service, both of whom spoke in support of the project.

Dunn said Vermont's summer peak electric load is growing rapidly, in part due to businesses and new homes adding air conditioning. O'Brien said the department had some aesthetic concerns about parts of the project and didn't see the need for a major upgrade planned at a substation in Williamstown, but supported the project overall.

The majority of those testifying were citizens from the Champlain Valley, who argued that not enough consideration had been given to alternatives to transmission system upgrades. They pointed to a study commissioned by VELCO that found that aggressive energy conservation measures in northwestern Vermont might remove the need for the power line upgrade.

Sen. Mark McDonald, D-Williamstown, asked Dunn a series of questions aimed at making the point that the Vermont power companies that own VELCO wouldn't make money off of energy efficiency, but will off of a power line upgrade.

Former Public Service Board Chairman Richard Cowart told the committee he didn't want to express an opinion about the overall VELCO project. But he, too, pointed to the financial incentives behind the project and said they needed to be changed.

Cowart said the ISO-New England, the six-state group that manages interstate transmissions of electricity in the region, has rules that call for all six states to chip in for a project like the VELCO power line upgrade, making it a much better deal for Vermont than it would be otherwise.

By contrast, there's no such multistate chipping in for energy conservation initiatives, Cowart said, arguing that Vermont should work with other states to change that.