Addison Independent Editorial

VELCO ruling ends this chapter of power line saga

February 12, 2005

In this market-driven society, the Public Service Board's decision to approve VELCO's Northwest Reliability Project aptly demonstrates that the perceived need for a ready supply of electrical power will trump all other concerns, and that business and money prevail.

The PSB granted VELCO almost all of what it wanted -- primarily the right to build a power-distribution line that is far larger than needed -- with the caveat that dozens of substantial mitigating measures must be taken to lessen the visual scar it will leave on the Addison County and southern Chittenden County landscape.

With a strategy quite similar to that being used by the current Bush administration, VELCO's primary argument was that Northwest Vermont would soon have an unavoidable "energy crisis" unless its plan was approved. It quantified the crisis in a worst-case scenario, suggesting the region could potentially go black under the current system, and that a fall-back, fail-safe system was needed to prevent such a dire event. (In the past, we have tagged such hyperbole as fear-mongering, and VELCO's public relations team has strongly denied anything of the sort. To VELCO, the crisis is real; to others, it's a one-in-a-million chance.)

What VELCO knows, as does the nation's crisis-happy President, is that no one in government wants a disaster to develop under their watch, especially when someone warned it may happen. Thus, to deny the potential for a crisis to occur, opponents have to be absolutely positive that -- beyond a doubt -- the likelihood of a crisis is so small that the threat doesn't have a leg to stand on. And that, admittedly, is difficult because, to make the crisis believable, there has to be a kernel of truth in the supposition.

VELCO's kernels of truth were obvious: Northwest Vermont has been the hotspot for growth in the state for the past couple of decades; no new power sources have come on line for years, thus it would seem probable that a shortage of power could develop there in the future; and finally, because no prior work had been done on alternative energy sources, no other viable solution exists if the demand for electric power can't be met in any other way.

While the PSB appeared conflicted in its decision and certainly piled on a load of mitigating conditions for VELCO to meet, the board members accepted the argument that more supply was needed and that the only way to meet that demand was to enlarge the existing system. To its credit, however, the PSB took VELCO to task in a strongly worded reprimand charging that VELCO had failed to consider alternative energy sources in a timely manner and said it will launch an investigation into those shortcomings.

"We are deeply troubled that ... we have no viable option but to approve a transmission solution for a reliability problem that might have been either deferred or more cost-effectively addressed through demand-side measures or local generation, if there had been sufficient advance planning by VELCO and its owners," the decision said. In another promising move, the board added that it will "revisit the Board's previous determination not to require VELCO to prepare an integrated resource plan."

But that public scolding is a small price to pay for its conditional permission to build an estimated $130 million electrical pipeline running 62.6 miles from West Rutland to South Burlington, and it overlooks several flaws in the overall process. While the PSB is investigating VELCO's alleged inattentiveness and revisiting its decision on integrated resource planning, the board might also want to review:

· The requirement for VELCO to plan future transmission systems on a "least-cost" basis. That charge, while working to keep electric rates low, fails state residents by not encouraging VELCO (or any other similar entity) to adequately consider the aesthetic impact within a community or on rural landscapes; by not doing everything possible to avoid putting large power lines through the middle of a town (as VELCO had initially proposed for Vergennes); and by not promoting the development of alternative sources of energy within the power mix.

· Serious consideration of a mechanism to refund communities' legal expenses for successful appeals of mitigating measures to the proposed transmission route. Tens of thousands of dollars were raised by a handful of Addison County communities to fight what the PSB later ruled created "undue adverse aesthetic impacts" on those towns. One would hope that such legal battles could be largely avoided by prior consultation and compromise (and that was done in some instances), but for those issues that require legal assistance, the board might consider awarding legal fees to the prevailing party. Such a measure would likely encourage both parties to compromise earlier and negotiate more earnestly.

In retrospect, the multi-year story of VELCO's Northwest Vermont Reliability Project (even the name smacks of rhetorical deceit) falls short of its historical reach. While it will be one of the state's largest electric power line projects in history, the hyped need to prevent a threatened crisis may loom like Bush's failure to find WMDs and tarnish the central plot; the many conditions mandated to mitigate "undue adverse impacts" on communities shines the spotlight on opponents; and the failure of VELCO to adequately plan for alternative energy sources makes the main character in this story seem far less than heroic. The PSB did write the latest chapter with VELCO's plan coming out on top, but whether VELCO is wearing a white hat in the end is far more muddied than it needed to be.
Angelo S. Lynn