VELCO Plays Down Concerns About Control Of Transmission Grid

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(Host) Control of the statewide transmission grid has emerged as a major issue as regulators review a proposed merger between the state’s two largest utilities.

Critics say the merged company under Canadian ownership is more likely to use Vermont as a corridor to import electricity from Quebec.

But as VPR’s John Dillon reports, the transmission company is playing down those concerns.

(Dillon) Chris Dutton, the CEO of the Vermont Electric Power Company, isn’t shy about his belief that a merger between the state’s two largest utilities is a good thing,

(Dutton) "The ability of more effective decision-making in the general spectrum of utility operations – not just transmission – but across the board, in my judgment would be greatly enhanced."

(Dillon) Dutton used to run Green Mountain Power, which is now owned by Montreal-based GazMet. GMP wants to merge with Central Vermont Public Service. The combined company would serve about 70 percent of the state’s electricity customers. It would also have a majority stake in VELCO – the statewide transmission company Dutton now heads.

Dutton says no utility on its own would be able to control the transmission network because VELCO operates under strict regulation, and has to keep its network open to all utilities.

(Dutton) "So the idea of VELCO or any other transmission owner restricting use of the system simply isn’t available, if in fact it ever was. It’s just gone."

(Dillon) Critics of the merger say VELCO is the real prize in the GMP-CVPS deal. Essex-Orleans Senator Vince Illuzzi says Vermont is more likely to see more power lines from Quebec if the merger is approved.

(Illuzzi) "Vermont‘s electric infrastructure – equivalent to the interstate highway for electric transmission – is being sold to a for-profit Canadian corporation. Is that in Vermont‘s best interest? I’m not sure it is. And that’s why we need to very closely and carefully scrutinize this deal."

(Dillon) Illuzzi points to a map VELCO prepared in 2009 that shows two possible routes for high voltage lines slicing from Quebec through his Northeast Kingdom district.

(Illuzzi) "There were two lines conceptually designed and put on paper, which would make our existing transmission network in Vermont look like toothpicks sticking in the ground."

(Dillon) But Chris Dutton of VELCO says the map is not a proposal for power lines. He says the idea was to map out other scenarios if a planned route through New Hampshire was cancelled. That project is called the Northern Pass, and it’s designed to carry 1,200 megawatts from Quebec to the Boston area.

(Dutton) "The whole point was simply to illustrate where a line might go. It’s never been part of the plan. It was simply an informative exercise."

(Dillon) Dutton says if a new power line were proposed, regulators would insist on tangible economic benefits for Vermont.

(Dutton) "In my judgment any project like that, in order to satisfy the public good standard and the economic benefit standard would have to involve an arrangement in which a significant amount of power would be bought by Vermont companies. In other words, it wouldn’t just be a thoroughfare like an interstate highway with no off-ramps."

(Dillon) Northern Pass says the debate in Vermont is beside the point because developers still hope to win approval for a line through New Hampshire.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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