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Vermont utilities eye new power plant

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted February 23, 2007

RUTLAND — In the coming weeks, the state’s largest utilities will begin, in earnest, to determine what it would take to build a new major source of electricity, capable of providing a sizeable chunk of Vermont’s base power needs.

Vermont Guardian first reported this story last summer, and since then talks between utilities and officials at the state Department of Public Service
— which represents ratepayers in major utility rate cases — have been underway, quietly, but intensely.

One of the larger questions facing Vermonters, and their future, is where they will get their power from if, and when, Vermont Yankee goes offline and a series of contracts with Hydro Quebec begin to expire. This all begins in 2012.

While federal regulators, and state lawmakers, weigh Entergy’s application to extend the operating license of Vermont Yankee, there are talks underway with Hydro Quebec to extend those contracts.

State lawmakers are also grappling with the weighty issue of global warming and what, if anything, can be done in Vermont to ease the human-induced contribution to greenhouse gases, and our sources of energy are one focus.

The state’s largest power companies — Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS) and Green Mountain Power —hope to issue a request for proposals within a month, or two, to determine if the state should, or could, build a new baseload power plant. Part of the study would also determine what fuel source would power the plant — nuclear, natural gas, biomass, or some combined fuel source (natural gas/wood chips).

Several officials close to these discussions do not believe that siting a new, nuclear power plant in Vermont is a realistic option, nor do they think a coal-fired plant has any chance of being sited. That leaves a plant fueled by biomass, natural gas, or a combined fuel source.

“Coal and nuclear would seem somewhat unlikely, but natural gas, or a combination of fuels, such as biomass are likely candidates,” said Steve Wark, a spokesman for the Department of Public Service (DPS).

One utility spokesman said the work behind the scenes has more to do with figuring out what a third-party study would entail, and what questions need to be answered.

“There’s been a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes, really looking at the scope of what the study should look at and what it would take to build a power plant and particularly in Vermont where there are a lot of issues to factor in,” said Steve Costello, a spokesman for CVPS, the state’s largest utility.

Beyond the obvious two — economics and the environment — there are technical and engineering issues that will need to be vetted, as well as narrowing down where a potential power plant could be sited, Costello said.

“You can’t just build one anywhere, you have to be able to get the power onto the grid safely,” said Costello.

Each of these issues must be weighed for their pros and cons in a feasibility study.

Location will be a key factor, and Costello believes a new power plant would likely have to be sited in Central or Northern Vermont — closest to the high-growth areas of Chittenden, northern Addison, and southern Franklin counties.

“People will keep an open mind about it, but clearly the load growth is really heavily in those areas,” said Costello.

Who would build such a plant, however, is an open question at this point.

“I think that is unclear,” said Costello. “It could be a utility or two, or all the utilities, or it could be a private company that builds it and lines up contracts to buy power. All that is stuff we have to look at.”

Costello believes DPS’ upcoming public outreach process, and CVPS’ own transmission discussions with many stakeholders in Southern Vermont, could dovetail nicely with the discussions about building a baseload power plant in Vermont.

“As we’re studying the possibility of building generation there will be this public outreach process and that could well inform and dovetail into the public discussion and we could hear from Vermonters if they think this is feasible or not feasible,” said Costello.

Wark agrees.

“They’re still early in the process but we’re in the middle of implementing a separate process to hear what Vermonters want their power to come from,” said Wark.

The Legislature, last year, called on DPS to engage Vermonters in a lengthy process to determine what power sources they’d like to see in the mix.

The state is contracting with the University of Texas, Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Research and Opinion, Facilitate.com, and Raab Associates to conduct the public outreach and then prepare a report for the Legislature.

Also, in Southern Vermont, CVPS is looking at beginning a process that could potentially create several smaller, distributed sources of power to help stabilize the flow of power on its transmission grid from Bennington to Stratton.

Rather than build more power lines, the utility is looking at ways to bring more, but smaller, power sources online to help ensure reliability.

Taken together, Costello said, these efforts are geared toward finding a balance.

“At this stage in the game, everyone wants to keep all options on the table,” said Costello. “As we’re looking at our future power supply and the public outreach process is tasked with coming up with conclusions, too, hopefully we’ll all be singing from the same hymnal.”