VELCO’s transmission project vs. the public good

Vermont’s Public Service Board recently held its final merits hearing to consider the proposal by VELCO, the for-profit transmission corporation owned by Vermont utilities, to install an enormous 345-kilovolt transmission line from West Rutland to New Haven, and a 115kv line through Ferrisburgh, Charlotte, and Shelburne — to triple transmission capacity to northwest Vermont.

VELCO calls this the “Northwest Reliability Project” and says this project is needed for “reliability” of the power grid and that without it, the lights in Chittenden County may go out. A compelling argument — yes. But, it’s patently untrue. There is much more that Vermonters need to know.

Expert studies show that conservation can meet our reliability needs. Need proof? California solved its energy crisis in 2001 largely by implementing an innovative program of conservation measures and rate discounts for customers who agreed to save energy. The program averted power outages while lowering customer bills. But conservation was rejected by VELCO because its business is to build transmission lines and sell electricity.

Reliability through conservation is better for Vermonters than building new lines. Conservation reduces electric bills and would keep millions of Vermont dollars in state, rather than shipping dollars south to buy power.

Conservation also works better because building more wires makes us more dependent on other states’ electric systems. The August 14, 2003, blackout spared Vermont because we were somewhat disconnected from the grid. VELCO’s project will make us more likely to join the next blackout.

The VELCO project has profound implications for all of Vermont. What happens will influence Vermont’s economic and energy policies for years to come.

Robert Blohm, an independent transmission expert, was hired by Vermont citizens to explain the long-term implications of building more wires. The real “need” for the NRP is to meet growing demands for electricity in Chittenden County. Specifically, it is to provide power to the big box stores and air conditioning for new homes in Burlington suburbs. Blohm explained that Vermont should be thought of as two “zones”: congested and uncongested, and electricity rates should be set accordingly. Federal authorities require this in other parts of New England.

Unlike the new federal rules, the way rates are currently applied in Vermont, the cost of electricity use growth in Chittenden County is paid for by all Vermonters. If Chittenden County paid its fair share for electricity, its rates would be 10 to 20 percent higher than the rest of Vermont. Residents of Bennington, Springfield, Rutland, Montpelier, and St. Johnsbury would pay 10 to 20 percent less, with a corresponding economic boost for these locales. Building VELCO’s NRP would perpetuate this inequity, and the decision to forego conservation will render almost inevitable another huge project of 345kv lines, this one running right into Chittenden County (already planned by VELCO).

Vermont’s Department of Public Service is supposed to protect the “public good” and the interests of all Vermont consumers — not just those living in Chittenden County. But in this case, the DPS has spent the state’s ratepayers’ money on witnesses to cheerlead for VELCO’s wires-only approach rather than rigorously review and challenge the evidence presented by the corporation. Of nearly a dozen witnesses used by the department, only one witness, a landscaper, provided testimony that enhanced the public interest. DPS’ other witnesses marched in lockstep with VELCO, while DPS joined VELCO in suppressing the testimony of experts paid for by ordinary citizens. The key consultant hired by the DPS to evaluate the “need” just recently retired from VELCO, where he planned the NRP.

This project has unfairly trampled on the interests of Vermonters. Towns have been pitted against towns and neighbors against neighbors regarding where to locate the “industrial strength” new lines. Local officials and citizens have been consumed by the demands of this case, with its rapid-fire deadlines and huge costs. So far, Vermont citizens and towns have had to raise more than half a million dollars for witness and legal fees to protect their interests. All in a rush to judgment pushed by VELCO so Vermonters are prevented from carefully considering better solutions such as conservation and rate reform.

There is one aspect of the NRP that will improve “reliability”: It will guarantee reliable profits for VELCO and its owners by perpetuating growth in energy use. That is good for VELCO. It is not so good for Vermonters. But it’s not too late to stop the NRP. Let the Public Service Board, the DPS, and your local legislator know that you want a more local, more energy efficient electricity system that reduces the need for new transmission lines.

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