There were only a few people at the Vermont Electric Co-op headquarters in Johnson Wednesday evening. There was no quarrelling, and political debates were strictly off-limits.
“We already have a democratic process set up in this country,” said Vermont Electric Coop chief executive officer David Hallquist, explaining that it wasn’t his or the Co-op’s job to take public policy positions. This was an “informational meeting,” designed to present facts.
But one person’s “fact” is often another’s fancy, or at least another’s debatable point.
Consider the simple, factual, “yes-or-no” answer to the only question that really matters here: Could a “no” vote by VEC members on a $12-million upgrade for a transmission line between Lowell and Jay scuttle the Lowell Mountain wind power project?
Hallquist had a simple answer. No it would not, he said. As evidence, he referred a questioner to a front-page story in Wednesday’s Burlington Free Press, and to the words of Mary Powell, the chief executive officer of Green Mountain Power, the company developing the Lowell Mountain project. Powell, according to Hallquist, stated that the development would proceed either way.
Not exactly. Powell did say that if Vermont Electric Co-op members reject the upgrade, Green Mountain Power had another way to move that wind-generated power off the mountain, and that while the alternative would be more expensive, “it wouldn’t fundamentally shift the economics.”
At best, that’s a suggestion that Green Mountain Power would start construction soon even if Vermont Electric Co-op members defeat the upgrade proposal. It was far short of an unequivocal assertion, especially considering how careful Green Mountain Power officials have been to avoid any pledge to proceed regardless of cost or delay.
The key word there is delay. What Hallquist did acknowledge to questioner Pat O’Neill (an active opponent of the wind project) is that if Co-op members vote down the proposal, Green Mountain Power’s alternative route would not just cost more; Green Mountain Power would also need a new or amended certificate of public good from the Public Service Board. That would take time, and time is of the essence if Green Mountain Power is to qualify for federal tax credits on the project. If construction does not start soon, the wind towers probably won’t be producing power for customers by Dec. 31, 2012, when the tax benefits expire.
They might be extended. Then again, they might not be. One never knows with Congress.
Green Mountain Power officials have never unequivocally stated that they would go ahead with the project without the tax breaks. So the more accurate answer to that simple “yes-or-no” question would seem to be: maybe.
“It will complicate the wind project,” said Luke Snelling of Energize Vermont, one of the groups opposing the Lowell Mountain wind towers. “Will it completely stop it? That’s an unknown.”
But an unknown may be the best opportunity left to the opponents after the Public Service Board gave Green Mountain Power its certificate of public good for the Lowell Mountain wind towers. That explains why they have mounted an active campaign to get Vermont Electric Coop’s 34,000 customers to turn down the Co-op’s proposal in the “special election” referendum. Ballots were mailed Tuesday, and are back at Vermont Electric Coop headquarters in Johnson on July 26. They can be hand-delivered there at a special meeting at 6 p.m. that day.
As with most elections, the outcome is uncertain, but here are two signs that Vermont Electric Coop’s management could lose: (1) Seven of the nine legislators from Orleans County have urged a “no” vote. Legislators tend to know what their constituents want, and in low-turnout elections, a motivated bloc can be pivotal; (2) Both Hallquist and Powell are trying to send the message that the results will not stop the Lowell Mountain project, an indication that they fear the referendum will lose if Co-op members believe it might stop it after all.
In general, Vermonters tell pollsters they approve of wind power. But at least in the Northeast Kingdom, the Lowell project appears to be widely – and bitterly – unpopular, except in the town of Lowell itself, where residents will receive economic benefits from the project its sponsors call Kingdom Community Wind.
At the meeting, Hallquist stressed the dangers of higher rates if the referendum loses. The transmission lines have to be upgraded anyway, he said (opponents argue the upgrade could wait several years), and if members approve the upgrade now, Green Mountain Power will pay for most of it. If Vermont Electric Co-op has to foot the whole bill, he said, that would require a “1 percent rate increase.” If the Co-op does not buy some of the Lowell Mountain power, he said, rates would rise another 2.5 percent because power from the next cheapest source of “renewable” power – a biomass plant – would cost more.
Powell was making a similar argument in her remarks to the Free Press: If Green Mountain Power had to rely on that alternative transmission system, owned by rival utility Central Vermont Public Service, its costs would be higher, and therefore so would customer electric bills.
That’s undoubtedly true. But if the customer’s electric bills were the highest priority, neither utility would be arranging for wind power at all. It’s expensive. The 9.6 centers per kilowatt hour projected (and perhaps “hoped for” would be more accurate) from Kingdom Community Wind is substantially more than power fueled by either natural gas or the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
This doesn’t mean that the utility executives are indifferent to customer electric bills or are doing something they should not. In fact, they are doing what they have been told to do by the Legislature, which wants them all to get 20 percent of their power from “renewable” sources by 2017. (And “renewable,” Hallquist later explained, does not include hydro power from Hydro-Quebec, renewable though that power may be as long as the rivers continue to run).
After first calling that standard “a mandate,” Hallquist acknowledged that, technically, it stopped just short of being a mandate. But from his perspective, it’s the functional equivalent. It’s “the message of Vermonters through the Legislature,” he said, “and we take that message seriously.”
He has no choice. But the “message” from Vermont’s electric power situation is that the price the customer pays is not set by the market (if it ever was) but by public policy, exactly what Hallquist, quite reasonably, did not want to debate. The policy makes electricity more expensive. It does so, said the creators of the policy, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Whether it will actually do that is debatable, perhaps one reason utility executives would rather not discuss the matter.
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