Sunday, April 11, 2004
Vermont can't run a 21st century high-tech economy on a 20th century electrical power system. That's the fundamental reality pushing a proposal by the Vermont Electric Co. to upgrade its transmission system in the western part of the state.
Without the project, Vermont would not have the reliable power network necessary to keep homes lighted and businesses humming.
VELCO wants to more than triple the capacity of electrical lines running from West Rutland to South Burlington to ensure that power supplies in northwest Vermont keep pace with the region's rapid growth. The proposal represents the first major expansion in the transmission system in more than 30 years.
The Vermont Public Service Board, which must approve the plan, is examining technical aspects of the case. The board had earlier sponsored public hearings. A final decision is expected in October.
The overriding factor is the undeniable need to deliver more electricity to Chittenden County and other parts of northwest Vermont. Between 1994 and 2002, Chittenden County added almost 6 million square feet of office, retail and industrial space. New housing in the county expanded by 13 percent during the 1990s.
>From 1990 to 2002, summer peak demand for electricity in Vermont soared from 800 megawatts to 1,020 megawatts, with most of the increase in the northwest.
That growth puts a lot of pressure on an antiquated electrical system. Given that Vermont is part of the New England power grid, the existing distribution network also raises fears of regional electrical problems. For that reason, costs of the $128 million project would be shared across New England, with Vermont ratepayers picking up roughly $12 million of the total tab.
After months of discussion, the VELCO plan emerges as the preferred solution. Suggestions that energy efficiency or building new generating facilities in Chittenden County would be better alternatives have not panned out. While conservation is always a good idea, it is too unreliable because of unpredictable consumer demand. New construction would undoubtedly encounter fierce public opposition and likely cost far more than the VELCO proposal.
VELCO, which is owned by a consortium of 16 Vermont utilities, wants to replace its 115 kilovolt line running from West Rutland to New Haven with a 345 kilovolt line; from New Haven to South Burlington the company would build a 115 kilovolt line to replace its 34 kilovolt line. Towers on both stretches would be significantly higher.
Ideally, the new lines would be buried. Putting them underground, however, could make the project 10 to 20 times more expensive, a cost that would probably not be picked up by other New England states.
According to Chris Dutton, head of Green Mountain Power, 90 percent of the proposed upgrade would follow existing rights of way. Most of the northern section would be along railroad tracks where the aesthetic drawbacks would be minimal. The poles and lines, Dutton said, would be "remarkably invisible" to the passing eye.
Through discussions with community groups, VELCO has tried to address local concerns. In Vergennes, for instance, lines that now run through downtown would be moved to a less congested route.
In any project of this magnitude, some people will be inconvenienced. People don't want a utility pole in their back yard. At town meeting in March, Ferrisburgh residents approved hiring a lawyer to challenge aspects of the VELCO project that affect the community. Whatever the Public Service Board and VELCO can do to mitigate the line's negative impact should be pursued during the review process.
But the lights must go on when Vermonters flip the switch. The VELCO proposal is the best way to ensure that they do.
Additional information on the VELCO project is available on the Web at www.nrpvt.com. The Public Service Board's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The board's Web site is www.state.vt.us/psb.