Sunday, November 02, 2003
Point / Counterpoint


By Tom Wies
We take it for granted that electricity will always be available -- to light our homes, cook our food, run our computers and power our centers of commerce.
In fact, the availability of electricity, 24/7, is the result of the near-flawless operation of an incredibly complex system, a system that must be carefully planned and maintained to match the full scope of the demands we place upon it.
The backbone of the system comprises the high-voltage transmission lines, of which there are about 450 miles in Vermont.
Most of those lines have not seen a major upgrade in many years, but in that time, use of electricity has risen dramatically.
My company, Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO) is responsible for the high-voltage system. Over the years, we have added many small fixes to comply with reliability standards, but we have now run out of room.
If we are to have a system that will provide the level of reliability expected in modern society, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, we have to make some major investments, and make them very soon.
The investments we propose constitute a coordinated set of line upgrades and substation improvements that we have called the Northwest Reliability Project, or NRP.
We have filed our plans for the NRP with the Vermont Public Service Board, and sometime next year, the board will rule as to whether the improvements will be made or not.
Our filing with the board has generated considerable controversy.
We sense there is a great deal of support for the project, but there is also much concern and some pretty clearly stated opposition.
The concerns center largely on two factors, aesthetics, and the question of whether the NRP will produce dangerous levels of electromagnetic fields (EMF).
As to aesthetics, we have tried to design and route the project to have the least adverse impact practicable. Our judgments in this regard are certainly not the only ones possible, and we remain willing to discuss alternatives with parties who believe they have improvements to suggest.
Some suggestions have already been made to place parts of the project underground.
VELCO has not proposed undergrounding, because it is enormously more expensive than overhead lines.
Nonetheless, the final say about design and routing lies with the Public Service Board.
If it is convinced that undergrounding of any portion of the NRP is worth the extra cost, it will direct us to construct it in that manner, and we will comply.
On the EMF issue: Owing to the physical reality that higher voltage lines produce lower fields than lower voltage lines, the magnetic fields produced by the NRP will either be minimally higher than the levels that would be produced by the existing lines, or will actually be less.
No endeavor is completely without risk, but VELCO firmly believes that the great majority of knowledgeable and disinterested observers would say that there is little likelihood that the NRP poses a public health hazard.
I want to say a few words concerning what the NRP is not about. Specifically, it is not intended as a highway for sending power through or out of Vermont.
It is about solving a Vermont reliability problem. The organization that operates the entire New England transmission network, a nonprofit company and one that is independent of VELCO and of any other utility, has stated that Vermont's reliability problems are the second most serious in the region. VELCO is not compelled to build the NRP.
But if Vermonters are to enjoy a continuation of the level of electrical system reliability it does today, the NRP will have to be built.
Tom Wies is a vice president at the Vermont Electric Power Co., VELCO. For more information on the Northwest Reliability Project go to