May 24, 2011

VEC to vote on Lowell-Jay transmission upgrade

Robin Smith, Staff Writer, Caledonian-Record, via: 24 May 2011

DERBY – Members of the Vermont Electric Cooperative will vote in July on a proposed new and upgraded transmission line to support the Lowell wind project.

Without the line, the Lowell wind project called Kingdom Community Wind cannot be built.

In effect, this is the only chance for all the members served by the co-op across northern Vermont to have a direct say on the Lowell wind project.

“Members will have an opportunity to vote on Kingdom Community Wind infrastructure upgrades in July,” co-op CEO Dave Hallquist said Saturday.

VEC leaders will hold regional meetings throughout the utility’s service area across northern Vermont in the coming months, Hallquist told about 200 members at the co-op’s annual meeting at the Elks Club.

VEC leaders and Liz Miller, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, also talked about energy choices for the co-op and the state.

The whole discussion was held knowing that the state’s regulators are about to rule on the Lowell wind project.

Hallquist said after the three-hour meeting that he had expected the Vermont Public Service Board would have issued its findings on Kingdom Community Wind on Friday.

Green Mountain Power officials, who want to erect 21 industrial wind turbines on the Lowell ridgeline before the end of 2012, expect the PSB to issue its ruling any day now.

The Lowell wind project is within VEC territory. VEC hopes to buy at cost 15 percent of the electricity generated from the 400-foot-tall wind turbines on Lowell Mountain and is a partner in the application for the project. VELCO, the transmission company, is also a partner.

The transmission line upgrades from Lowell to Jay will cost $10.8 million, with VEC picking up about $4 million if members approve and the other partners picking up the rest, Hallquist said.

Hallquist said his job as CEO is straightforward and not affected by arguments over the aesthetics of energy projects: “Keeping the lights on, keeping the costs down.”

The co-op advantage for members is clear, he added: “You have a voice and you get to vote.”

Members said they were concerned about what the ballot question on the transmission line upgrade would look like and who gets to draft it.

Hallquist said the PSB would decide what the question would look like.

John Ward, who represents the Newport City area on the VEC board, said the question would be straightforward. Those against the Lowell wind project would vote no, he said.

Hallquist defended the economic value of buying electricity from the Lowell wind project, at 9 to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour the cheapest available to VEC.

He disputed the argument by Dr. Ron Holland of Irasburg that industrial wind in Vermont is not economically sound when considered against the national energy resource picture.

VEC, Hallquist said, has to deal with Vermont requirements that utilities have a portfolio of in-state renewable energy resources. Lowell wind is the cheapest of all options, he said.

Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, R-Newport City, urged the VEC board to immediately ask the Public Service Board to consider recent studies cited by Holland on the national energy picture.

“Lowell is totally inefficient and won’t accomplish the goal” of the state, Kilmartin said, to scattered applause.

These studies say the real methods to deal with global warming are cap and trade or taxes on energy based on its carbon footprint, Hallquist argued. But VEC still has to react to the state requirements, he said.

Pam Tetreault of Lowell thanked VEC for its collaboration in the Lowell wind project, also to scattered applause.

Carol Maroni of Craftsbury asked how members could get more answers about the Lowell wind project and the transmission upgrade vote. She waved a sheet of questions distributed by Dennis Liddy of Westfield who opposes the wind project.

Maroni is seeking election to a vacant seat on the VEC board representing towns that would be in the viewshed of the turbines.

Others said they want a say in how the ballot question is drafted.

Hallquist urged members to contact their board representatives.

The board could form an ad hoc committee, board President Tom Bailey of Derby said.

Liddy challenged Hallquist to fight the Legislature’s renewable requirements.

“Why don’t you stand up to politicians?” Liddy asked.

“I believe that’s your job,” Hallquist said. “We are not a lobbyist organization. We are an electric utility.”

“If you don’t trust the public process you need to get down to Montpelier and change it,’ Hallquist added.

Yankee and Northern Pass

Hallquist defended the board’s nearly unanimous vote against a new contract for electricity from Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

He called it a fair deal that wasn’t the best deal because it would fluctuate with market prices.

Hallquist also said VEC will not participate in any way in the proposed Northern Pass transmission line sought by Hydro-Quebec through New Hampshire.

Credit Rating

Treasurer and board member Bert Lague of Derby Line and others touted the co-op’s new credit rating of A, the highest VEC has ever achieved in its 73-year history. That’s up from just above junk bond status in 2006, Hallquist said. Creditors “were very impressed with our moves.”

Hallquist also explained the smart grid work begun in the past decade by VEC staff. Ninety percent of members have smart meters and 50 percent of the substations are automated, he said.

“You have already seen the benefits of the savings of the smart grid,” he said.

In the worst storm in the co-op’s history, Dec. 1, 2010, VEC was able to tell members, street by street, when the power would come back on, he said.

Smart Grid Leadership

The co-op is one of nine in the nation picked for a study of smart grid use, Hallquist said. “I’m proud of that.”

During the study 700 members will receive a one-on-one service call to learn how to use the smart grid and half of those will also have an in-home display as well.

VEC will be a test case for the state as well as the nation in smart grid use, he said.

Consumers in the co-op will be able to reduce power usage, especially during peak times, he said.

Miller complimented VEC’s efforts. “VEC has been a leader here.”

Her department intends to draft the state’s first new energy policy in years.

There will be hearings about the draft policy later this summer, she said.

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