Monday, December 22, 2003

Power upgrade considered

By Matt Crawford
Free Press Staff Writer
Opponents and critics of a $128 million power line upgrade in western Vermont fully expected the Department of Public Service to come out in support of the project last week.
Now, they're hopeful the three-member Public Service Board will listen to all sides of the argument when it pores over testimony and evidence in the next few weeks.
The Public Service Department announced that it was giving conditional approval to the Northwest Reliability Project, which would triple the size of power lines from West Rutland to New Haven with higher poles and broader rights of way. In addition, a new power line will be built from New Haven along the Lake Champlain shore to South Burlington, most of it along an existing power line route.
The project, which has been described as the largest utility construction project in Vermont in at least 20 years, is being proposed by the Vermont Electric Power Corp.
"I'm hopeful the Public Service Board will be as objective as they say they are going to be when they look at this," said project opponent Page Guertin of Vergennes. "Granted, the fact that the Public Service Department came out in support lends a lot of weight to that side, but hopefully the board won't be in lock-step with the department."
The quasi-judicial board's three members have final say on the project. An ultimate decision is expected by summer, but hearings begin on the matter in February.
"This is probably the most significant case the board has seen in a number of years, if not in the history of the board,"said David O'Brien, Public Service commissioner.
While the project -- tabbed the Northwest Reliability Project -- has a number of supporters in the business community, it has come under fire from the towns of New Haven, Shelburne, Charlotte and Vergennes and thousands of Champlain Valley residents.
Some opponents are against the entire project, others would like to see significant alterations to the plan, including burying lines and rerouting the project through high-visibility areas.
Testimony filed by the Public Service Department, the state entity responsible for representing ratepayers in utility matters, urged approval of most of the components of the project. O'Brien said his department did consider some of the opposing views when drafting support of the plan.
"There are individuals and towns with strong desires to see this project altered to minimize the impact on their neighborhoods and villages," O'Brien said. "We have to consider this project for all the ratepayers in the state, and in New England, and be very careful those alterations do not add considerable cost or alter the reliability of the project."
Opponents hope their views will carry as much weight as the department's with the board.
"We knew this was coming," said project Ken Wheeling of Monkton, a member of Vermont Citizens for Safe Energy, an activist group opposed to the VELCO upgrade. "Everybody is marching in line with the way the drum is beating, but we've got some testimony the board will see that will be quite revealing."
Contact Matt Crawford at 651-4852 or