To David Hallquist, the vote that Vermont Electric Cooperative members will take this month is about upgrading an outdated, undersized transmission line that his utility must improve.
To Robert “Ron” Holland, the vote is about whether there should be wind turbines atop Lowell Mountain.
The co-op’s 34,000 members will vote over the next month whether to allow the electric utility to upgrade its transmission line between Lowell and Jay. Because that transmission line would carry power from a new Green Mountain Power Corp. wind-power project, it carries with it all the controversy of that wind project, which has strong supporters and vehement opponents.
“This is a vote about the Lowell wind project – absolutely,” said Holland, an Irasburg resident and co-op member, who is among those urging members to vote against the transmission line. “The public hasn’t been able to participate in this effectively.”
“The association between VEC and GMP is a deal that co-op members can’t afford to turn down,” said Hall- quist, the co-op’s chief executive officer, in a letter to members.
Co-op members will vote on two other items – a deal for power with Hydro-Quebec and a change in bylaws – but the transmission line has generated the most attention. Most co-op votes draw little interest, but in the past year or so, members have become engaged over certain issues, including the Lowell wind project and the purchase of power from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. In April, the co-op board voted against a deal with Vermont Yankee for power after next year.
Ballots should arrive in members’ mailboxes in the coming days. They were preceded by a newsletter from the co-op explaining the process.
Opponents to the Lowell project plan a mailing to co-op members and have bought newspaper advertisements, urging a vote against the transmission line upgrade.
Co-op officials, conscious of the brewing opposition, are also trying to make their case that the utility must upgrade its transmission line and a vote against that is unlikely to kill the wind project. They plan a series of informational meetings throughout the coverage area.
“Voters could say no and then end up with a rate increase,” Hallquist said.
By pairing with Green Mountain Power, the co-op would save millions of dollars for an upgrade it has to do regardless of the wind project, Hallquist said. On its own, the co-op would have to pay $8.9 million to upgrade the line, he said. Working with Green Mountain Power, the co-op would pay $5 million.
The agreement with Green Mountain Power holds other advantages for Vermont Electric Cooperative, Hallquist said. The co-op would buy power from the Lowell wind project for 9.6 cents per kilowatt hour for 25 years, Hallquist said, a relatively good deal for renewable energy. That would also help the utility meet its state requirements for having 20 percent of its power come from renewable sources by 2017, he said.
Michelle DaVia, a co-op board member from Westford, said the board unanimously decided the agreement was in the best interest of its members, given the available technology and the renewable energy requirements. “It was definitely not an easy decision. There was certainly a tremendous amount of discussion,” she said.
Expansion at the Jay Peak Ski Resort is increasing demand for electricity in the area that requires an increase in capacity, Hallquist said.
Hallquist also argues that defeating the transmission line will do nothing to defeat the wind project. If Green Mountain Power is unable to carry its power on the co-op’s transmission line, it will find another way, possibly working with Central Vermont Public Service Corp., he said. Good deal or bad?
Green Mountain Power Chief Executive Officer Mary Powell said the agreement with the co-op makes sense for both utilities. If co-op members vote it down, she said, Green Mountain Power’s costs for the wind project will likely increase, but not enough to kill the project. “It wouldn’t fundamentally shift the economics,” she said.
Opponents hope that if they can defeat the transmission line, they’ll at least delay the wind project.
“If members vote it down, this project might still happen. It also might not happen,” said Pat O’Neill of Westfield, a co-op member campaigning against the transmission line upgrade. “A ‘no’ vote will get the attention of people.”
Green Mountain Power won permission from the state Public Service Board in June to build 21 wind turbines reaching 40 feet high. Company officials hope to start construction Aug. 1, although opponents continue to challenge the project. The wind project needs to be in operation by the end of 2012 for Green Mountain Power to receive federal tax credits.
O’Neill said she opposes the wind project because she does not think it’s the most cost-effective form of renewable energy, especially considering its impact on the landscape. “There are less destructive ways to meet renewable standards,” she said. She argued that when evaluating a project’s cost-effectiveness, the state should put a value on disruption to the environment.
Holland argued it’s also a bad deal economically. He takes issue with Vermont renewable energy policy, encouraging Vermont utilities to develop in-state wind projects despite poorer wind quality and higher construction costs than can be found in other states.
“The mountain is a scarce resource. If you’re going to use it for something other than what it is, it should be well-thought out,” Holland said. “It’s not well-thought out.”
Lawmakers weigh in
Several state legislators from the Northeast Kingdom have joined in the call to vote against the co-op transmission line. Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, said he doubts the transmission line really needs to be upgraded and he doubts the wind project will produce a steady, reliable flow of power. Starr, a co-op member who lives in Troy, said he believes the wind turbines would “ruin our landscape.”
Fellow Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, disagrees. Illuzzi, also a co-op member, argued that the transmission line upgrade is necessary to provide uninterrupted power for economic development in the Northeast Kingdom. “A ‘no’ vote would jeopardize a redundant power source for Jay Peak resort and not in any way stop the Green Mountain Power wind project,” Illuzzi said.
Hallquist said he hopes the vote will at least generate a strong turnout, as not all co-op votes have. He said he’s hoping at least 30 percent of the ballots are cast, he said.