Hearings conclude, board deliberates decision on VELCO transmission line

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(Dillon) After more than a year of review, state utility regulators plan to issue a decision next month on a large power line project planned for western Vermont. But as the hearings wind down, opponents continue to raise fundamental questions about whether the project is needed.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The Vermont Electric Power Company says its $130 million transmission upgrade will protect the region from power blackouts. The company has tried to underscore that argument by naming the project the Northwest Reliability Project, or NRP.

Part of the plan includes a 345 kilovolt transmission line from West Rutland to the town of New Haven. The small Addison County town is fighting the line and its attorney, Jim Dumont, also bases his argument on reliability. Only he takes the opposite view.

(Dumont) “What the public may think of as the reliability question is: Are we going to have widespread outages like happened in August in 2003? And what our expert says, if we build the NRP we are more likely to have outages like that than if we don’t build the NRP. The NRP connects us with the rest of the grid more closely. And one of the reasons we didn’t go down in August of 03 is that we didn’t happen to be connected at that time. The alternative to connect ourselves more tightly to the grid is to do more conservation and keep our summer peak down.”

(Dillon) According to Dumont, it’s more cost-effective and better for the state’s economy and the environment to invest in conservation programs rather than new transmission lines.

New Haven isn’t alone in its opposition. The towns of Shelburne, Charlotte and Ferrisburgh have all asked the Public Service Board to turn down the project. The Addison County Regional Planning Commission has also questioned the need for the new lines.

But the state Department of Public Service, which represents ratepayers, supports VELCO’s proposal. David O’Brien is commissioner of Public Service. He says the state examined, and rejected, the conservation alternative.

(O’Brien) “We looked at that analysis very thoroughly and filed extensive testimony on that early on the case where we concluded that the NRP was the superior, low-cost solution under state statute.”

(Dillon) O’Brien also rejects the reliability issue raised by the town of New Haven. O’Brien says New Haven’s expert witness is just plain wrong in his analysis.

But some who question the project have been critical of the state’s role. Representative Joyce Errecart, a Republican from Shelburne, says that the state hasn’t looked close enough at the need for the project, the reliability issues, and the alleged health effects of power lines.

(Joyce) “And in this case, the towns have had to spend a lot of time and money trying to bring out what the issues are here. And towns don’t have that kind of expertise. This is a new thing for towns like Shelburne and Charlotte and New Haven to get deeply involved in utility hearings.”

(Dillon) O’Brien, the public service commissioner, says the state has exhaustively examined the key issues in the case. He says the state has to represent all ratepayers, not just those along the power line route.

Although New Haven wants the Public Service Board to delay its decision, VELCO spokesman David Mace says that the Board has already conducted a thorough review over 34 days of hearings.

(Mace) “VELCO has provided written answers to more than 2,500 discovery questions from the parties in the case. We believe that when it’s finally concluded this project will be one of the most heavily scrutinized utility infrastructure projects in the history of this case.”

(Dillon) The PSB now has to review thousands of pages of testimony and legal briefs. It wants to issue a decision on the case by mid-January.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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