Vermont Electric Co-op votes are typically low-key affairs. The ballot response (by mail only) is about 8 percent of co-op members, or about 2,600 out of 34,000 ratepayers. The votes usually are ho-hum organizational decisions – approval of power purchase agreements or the election of directors of the board, and the like.
This year, however, is different. The Vermont Electric Co-op has mailed special ballots to members, asking them to approve a 16.9-mile transmission line upgrade from Lowell to Jay.
In a break with standard protocol, the Vermont Electric Co-op is aggressively soliciting support for the project.
That’s because co-op officials say they are worried activists who oppose Kingdom Community Wind will hijack the vote. Environmentalists and people in neighboring towns object to the 21-turbine project on Lowell Mountain and are mobilizing their base to vote against the line upgrade in a last-ditch effort to scuttle the wind tower installation, which is set to begin in August.
If the transmission line upgrade isn’t approved, co-op officials say members will pay full freight for the line improvements and substation construction a few years hence. The co-op will also lose out on an opportunity to get a good deal on power from Kingdom Community Wind, according to officials.
The transmission line has turned into the third rail of politics for supporters and opponents of the Green Mountain Power’s wind project in Lowell. Energize Vermont and Vermonters for a Clean Environment, two environmental groups that oppose the turbines, are pushing residents in the area to vote against the transmission line upgrade as a way of delaying, and possibly killing Kingdom Community Wind. (Green Mountain Power, which is owned by Montreal-based Gaz Metro, could lose $40 million in federal tax credits if it cannot complete the Lowell project at the end of 2012.)
Lukas Snelling, director of communications for Energize Vermont, has organized a mailing and community members who live in the Northeast Kingdom are calling co-op ratepayers, urging them to vote against the upgrade. Energize Vermont and VCE also recently held a press conference with lawmakers in the Northeast Kingdom who are outspoken in their opposition to the Kingdom Community Wind project.
Meanwhile, the co-op is countering with its own PR campaign, urging its members to vote for the upgrade. Hallquist said he is giving talks at chambers of commerce and business clubs. Other groups and individuals, too, are marshalling their forces to align voters behind the upgrade. Bill Stenger, CEO of Jay Peak Resort, is working his contacts; and two nonprofits, AARP Vermont and VPIRG, have both issued email blasts urging their members in the co-op territory to support the upgrade.
Members of the Vermont Electric Co-op have until July 25 to submit their ballots.
The 40-year-old transmission line was slated for infrastructure improvements in 2015. (The total cost of the transmission line upgrade would be somewhat lower, $8.9 million, if it didn’t include the Lowell wind project.) But the co-op put the scheduled infrastructure improvements on the fast track when Green Mountain Power offered to pay for $7 million of the $12 million project in order to more efficiently transfer power from Kingdom Community Wind, its controversial wind project, to the town of Jay, which hosts the ski area, Jay Peak Resort. Vermont Electric Co-op has an agreement with Green Mountain Power to transmit electricity to Jay, which as a result of massive renovations to the ski area will require a 70 percent increase in electricity, or 6.3 megawatts, in additional power over the next 10 years. ISO New England, the corporation that manages bulk generation and transmission of power in the region, asserts that the co-op’s northern transmission loop, which runs from Highgate to Derby, is inadequate to support the demand for Jay Peak Resort.
Dave Hallquist, CEO of Vermont Electric Co-op, says if the agreement is rejected, rates will increase by 2.5 percent. That’s if the deal doesn’t go through, Hallquist says, the co-op will lose out on an opportunity to save about 1 percent in transmission costs (Green Mountain Power would pay 58.3 percent of the cost) and about 1.5 percent on renewable power purchases.
“Some people say I’d be happy to pay 1 percent more,” Hallquist said. “We think every cent counts. We think it’s our obligation to our members to do things as optimally as possible.”
Like other utilities in Vermont, the co-op is scrambling to meet the state’s SPEED requirements. Though other sources of power cost significantly less, under state law, utilities must derive 20 percent of their electric generation from renewables by 2017.
At the moment, the Vermont Electric Co-op gets about 11 percent of its electricity from in-state renewable sources, Hallquist said. Thirty-seven percent of the co-op’s power comes from a series of massive dams owned by Hydro-Quebec and 17 percent comes from Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon. The balance of the co-op’s power comes from natural gas plants in the Northeast.
After 2012, the co-op isn’t counting on any power from Vermont Yankee, as the state has mandated that the plant be shut down by March 21 of next year. In addition, the co-op’s share of Hydro-Quebec power will drop to 25 percent, and though the initial price is 5.8 percent, that rate is adjusted according to market prices every year. Hallquist said his member-owned company hopes to make up some of the difference with more in-state renewable energy from Kingdom Community Wind, which would be 4 percent of the co-op’s portfolio, and Sheffield Wind, which would produce 12 percent of the co-op’s power.
If member-ratepayers approve the agreement with Green Mountain Power, the co-op will be able to purchase power from Kingdom Community Wind at an average price of 9.6 cents per kilowatt hour for 25 years, Hallquist said.
Other renewables cost considerably more, according to a chart cited in the co-op’s literature. Wholesale rated for biomass and hydro are between 12 cents and 14 cents per kilowatt; solar is 24 cents per kilowatt.
“It’s a big deal for us to find an opportunity to bring the best rates we can to our members,” Hallquist said. “We’re not in the business to serve shareholders; we work for members.”
Snelling, of Energize Vermont, disputes Hallquist’s savings assumptions. There is no guarantee, he said, that Green Mountain Power will sell electricity to the co-op at the 9.6 cent per kilowatt rate. That’s because, Snelling said, the utility may have to lower the “cut-in” speed of the turbines (the speed at which turbines can start spinning) to protect birds and bats. In addition, it’s likely, he says, that the turbines will have to operate in noise reduction mode, in which the blades rotate at a particular angle to lower the sound impact.
“They’re making guesses about performance of a project that hasn’t been built,” Snelling said. “It’s a gamble whether those numbers are right. That’s the gamble I’m not willing to make.”
James Moore, the energy advocate for VPIRG, accuses opponents of the wind project of “misleading” the public.
“There is a very clear economic benefit for Vermont Electric Co-op members if they vote in support of the transmission upgrade,” Moore said. “It will lead to lower electricity rates ,and they’ve got fliers and info that has cast that into debate that tries to make it all about other issues and what this vote is about is upgrading a power line so we can meet reliability needs in the region and increase our renewable energy supply with some of the most reliable renewable energy available. There are other things being put on this vote that aren’t legitimate.”
Moore said VPIRG has reached out to 2,000 members in the co-op’s territory.
The Vermont Electric Co-op will hold its last informational meeting on the transmission upgrade ballot from 6:30 to 8 p.m., Monday, July 18 at the Albany Community School in Albany.
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