February 05, 2005

VELCO opponents say there's still time to find alternatives

By Matt Sutkoski
Free Press Staff Writer

Alternatives to a major power transmission upgrade in western Vermont are still possible, say opponents of the proposal, despite a Jan. 28 Public Service Board decision that said the project is the only sure way to keep a steady supply of electricity flowing in northwestern Vermont.

Meanwhile, in Rutland County, some residents say they are dismayed by the effect the project would have on the landscape.

The Public Service Board approved, with multiple conditions, Vermont Electric Power Co.'s proposal known as the Northwest Reliability Project. It includes a 345-kilovolt line between West Rutland and New Haven, a 115-kilovolt line between New Haven and South Burlington, substation renovations and other upgrades.

Had VELCO started planning earlier, the Public Service Board said, alternatives to the project might have worked. The Public Service Board also demanded changes to the project. Revisions the board wants include changing the location of a substation in New Haven, burying a section of the power line in Shelburne and having the project blend into the landscape better.

It will take many months for VELCO to submit the revised plans that the Public Service Board wants. Project opponents said they vow to use that time to promote their arguments for alternatives, lobby for changes and question the logic of the project, the cost of which would easily top $130 million.


The Public Service Board's Jan. 28 decision flatly said the project is necessary because alternatives such as new power generation and energy savings are not possible or could not come online fast enough to meet northwestern Vermont's growing thirst for electricity.

Still, the decision takes VELCO to task for not looking into alternatives earlier.

"Those flaws fall into two categories: deficiencies in forecasting expected electricity demand on a seasonal and regionwide level, leading to a need to consider and install new facilities closer to the time that they are essential," the decision said.

Annette Smith of the group Vermonters for a Clean Environment said it's not too late to investigate alternatives.

"Just because the board made the decision they made Friday doesn't mean this project is going to be built anytime soon," she said, referring to the day last month the decision was released. She noted that VELCO and others have said it's too hard to find locations and obtain permits for generating plants in Chittenden County, "but it's countered by the argument that nobody has put out a request for proposals. Therefore, how do you know it won't work?" she said.

Mark Sinclair of the Conservation Law Foundation said VELCO should invest in alternatives such as programs that encourage large businesses to reduce their electricity demands during peak summer usage. He also said more money should go to Efficiency Vermont to promote conservation. Perhaps the Legislature should help find a way to boost conservation or other alternatives, he said.

In their decision, Public Service Board members were decidedly unconvinced that alternatives are on the horizon. "The timely availability of the necessary new generating plants and the facilities to fuel them is at best uncertain," the board said, using the italics for emphasis. "No party has emerged that is willing to take responsibility for that construction."

The board went on to say that "VELCO has sought to excuse its failures to aggressively pursue non-transmission alternatives, asserting both legal arguments and practical difficulties." The panel will launch an investigation testing the assertions.

David Mace, VELCO's spokesman, said the company welcomes the investigation. Planning was started for the Northwest Reliability Project many years ago, with officials from the utility concluding the project is the best alternative for northwestern Vermont.

Mace said federal regulators discourage transmission utilities such as VELCO from getting into the electricity generation business. It would be up to other utilities, businesses or organizations to create more generating plants or design good conservation strategies. he said.

The Public Service Board said in its decision that Vermont doesn't have the ability to save enough electricity by getting large employers to reduce their electrical use when overall demand is high. Also, research shows that other utilities have had trouble enrolling enough major employers into reducing usage.

Sinclair responds by saying VELCO did not survey the market to determine whether businesses could reduce usage.

"VELCO is saying, 'It's not our job,'" he said. "They don't want customers to reduce their energy loads. They want to sell more power."
The south

The Reliability Project stirred relatively little controversy in Rutland and southern Addison counties, at least compared to outcry from some quarters over aspects of the project in New Haven, Charlotte, Shelburne and some other towns.

Some Rutland County residents are raising questions about the project, and the Public Service Board decision could fuel those stirrings.

VELCO would improve a substation in West Rutland, then string the 345-kilovolt line up the Champlain Valley to New Haven. "I think there's always been concern about it," said Joanne Bagley of Salisbury, who lives along the path of the power line upgrade.

Mace said his company tried from the beginning to inform residents about the project, and that might have helped address some concerns, he said. "VELCO did a fairly exhaustive outreach program with officials in the towns that are being impacted by the project," Mace said. Also, the new wires will run along the path of existing transmission lines, so relatively little will change.

Bagley said the changes will include taller poles and more noticeable wires. She also said VELCO would remove many trees to make room for the improvements, making the line more noticeable.

At several points along the proposed transmission line route in Rutland and Addison counties, the Public Service Board said VELCO's proposed efforts to minimize the effect of the project on the landscape fell short. The utility must add more trees, change the height of poles or take other measures to improve the view in places such as Whipple Hollow Road in West Rutland and Pittsford, the Leicester-Whiting Road in Leicester and in parts of Salisbury.

Bagley said at her property, a lot of trees will come down, and she worries about property values. "I don't think we could ever turn around and sell our house," she said.

Objections to the line in Rutland County is far from universal. Town managers in Pittsford and Brandon said reaction to the proposed line in those towns has been muted.

Bagley said she would meet with neighbors and then decide how to respond to the Public Service Board decision.

"People don't know about this VELCO issue. They really don't understand it," Bagley said. "I am hoping that it does get appealed -- anything to buy more time to try to keep working on the issue."

Contact Matt Sutkoski at 660-1846 or