Addison Independent

VELCO again considers new transmission lines across county


ADDISON COUNTY - The Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO) is resurrecting discussions about relieving stress on the state's transmission lines, with solutions ranging from conserving power to performing a massive upgrade of the line towers that stretch through Addison County.

VELCO provides and maintains all the high-voltage transmission lines in the state. Most of that infrastructure was built during the 1960s and 1970s and is quickly becoming unable to deliver the power that Vermonters are demanding, according to Richard Watts, a consultant working on behalf of VELCO.

"Average growth (in demand for electricity) is growing about 2 percent per year," Watts said of Vermont. "The northwest region of the state, however, is growing faster."

That northwest region includes much of Addison, Chittenden and Franklin counties.

"VELCO's mission is to provide reliable electricity," Watts said. "You have a demand that is increasing, and we need an answer on how to provide electricity in Vermont."

Watts said VELCO is considering four options to address its transmission line inadequacies. They include:

· Building a new power plant in Vermont.

· Aggressively encouraging energy conservation to reduce demand.

· Promoting alternative energy sources.

· Upgrading the transmission line network to better carry power from in, and outside of, Vermont.

Watts said he does not see a lot of support for the construction of a new energy plant in Vermont. Such plants are, however, being built in Massachusetts and Maine. Those plants could become a source of energy for the Green Mountain State, he said.

"But if you want to access that power, you need to upgrade the transmission network," Watts said.

That's easier said than done, however.

VELCO officials are talking about a $60 million project along the western side of the state they conceded would take several years to get through the permitting process and build. Of most interest to Addison County will be the stretch of the potential project from West Rutland to Williston. That project would call for a new line - and taller towers - to be placed along the current VELCO right-of-way in the Addison County towns of Leicester, Salisbury, Middlebury, New Haven and Monkton.

VELCO's line in Addison County is currently built for 115,000 volts. The company is seeking to put in another line capable of carrying 345,000 volts.

Current towers along the line are around 55 feet tall. The upgrade would require towers of approximately 75 feet in height, according to Tom Dunn, project manager for VELCO.

VELCO's northwest line improvement would also require a boost in its 46,000-volt substation line that stretches from New Haven to Vergennes. That line, including taller towers, would be boosted to 115,000 volts, according to Watts.

If the company decides that a transmission line upgrade is the way to go - and officials say that such a project will have to occur at some point - one of the biggest challenges will be to somehow mitigate the visual impacts of the larger towers.

Residents and officials of Addison County communities within the VELCO path voiced concerns about the larger towers around three years ago, when the company last floated a trial balloon on such a project. In Monkton, some citizens circulated a petition opposing the upgrade.

Dunn acknowledged the concerns, though he said landscaping and placing the towers next to forest lines could help conceal them.

"There are ways you can place the towers to minimize the aesthetic impacts," Dunn said.

If the company does decide to upgrade its infrastructure throughout the state, the cost would be roughly $110 million. Vermonters would pay for the cost through an increase in their electricity bills. VELCO's transmission costs currently represent 3 percent of the typical electricity bill. That would go up to 4.5 percent, if VELCO pursues its project. VELCO is owned jointly by the state's power utilities.

VELCO officials will decide by next fall which of the four options it will pursue to relieve the stress on transmission lines. The company will need permission from the Vermont Public Service Board to move forward with a project.

Last week saw VELCO officials explaining their options to the Addison County Regional Planning Commission.

Harvey Smith, chairman of the ACRPC board, said VELCO's presentation made it clear that there will be no easy answer to the company's dilemma. He noted that electricity conservation efforts may not be able to deliver all the stress relief that VELCO is seeking for its lines. And alternative energy projects that return electricity to the state's power grid - such as windmills - are sometimes hard to permit, he said.

"It's a big issue we're going to have to study and understand, and decide as a society where we're going to go," Smith said