Burlington Free Press


Saturday, December 02, 2000

IT'S MY TURN: Now is the time to plan for electric-power needs

By Richard M. Chapman

Electric-utility issues have been prominent in the news of late: rate cases, retail competition, restructuring, mergers and the proposed sale of Vermont Yankee. While these high-profile events have been unfolding, the company responsible for most of Vermont's high-voltage transmission system -- VELCO -- has been quietly and methodically looking at whether the present infrastructure will be adequate for Vermont's electricity needs in the future.

The major force driving the need to reassess the adequacy of Vermont's transmission system is the persistent pattern of very strong economic growth in Chittenden County. In that region, which is already the most economically vital area in the state, 11,000 new jobs have been created, more than 3,000 new units of housing have been constructed, and more than a million square feet of retail space have been added, all within the last six years.

Commercial growth seems likely to continue, with new projects such as Maple Tree Place about to begin construction, and with plans for expansion by IBM, Husky and others in the works. Other parts of the state, though, particularly those with strong winter recreational development, are also seeing significant growth in electrical demand.

Economic growth begets a corresponding increase in the demand for electricity. By this measure, the Chittenden County area has been growing two to three times faster than the state as a whole. In the digital age, economic growth also puts another kind of demand on the electric system: for higher power quality. Small dips in voltage can cause sensitive electronic equipment to malfunction, resulting in everything from home computers dumping work product to the loss of production runs in high-tech manufacturing, with severe economic consequences. Delivering power that minimizes such disruptions imposes special requirements on the transmission system.

Whether the trend of increasing electric demand continues will depend not only on economic growth but also on the effectiveness of public policies to encourage conservation. It may also be influenced by the development of new technologies for local, small-scale generation. Whatever the future brings, VELCO is taking the prudent course in planning now for transmission solutions to potential demands.

We are considering a variety of options that would most effectively and efficiently meet the state's requirements under a range of possible growth scenarios. One, a high-tech device for maintaining voltage stability, is already under construction at a substation in Williston. Other potential projects include upgrading a large segment of our major north-south line, improving the lines into and around greater Burlington and tying facilities in the northern part of the state more robustly to the rest of the system. Various smaller-scale projects are also under examination.

Any transmission-line upgrade that VELCO would undertake would be designed to be as environmentally benign as possible. Key considerations in any project are avoiding the creation of significant new transmission-line corridors and retiring existing corridors where possible. In extremely sensitive view sheds, new lines or upgrades might be placed underground.

Ultimately, it will be a public body, with public input, that will decide the course of transmission construction. Under Vermont law, no transmission facility can be built unless the Vermont Public Service Board, after considering economic and environmental costs and benefits, determines that the project will promote the general good of the state. Vermonters can thus be assured that while VELCO is continuously planning for the state's electrical future, public institutions will have to be convinced that such plans are in the interests of all before they are implemented.

Richard M. Chapman is president and chief executive officer of Vermont Electric Power Co., VELCO, based in Rutland.