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Dueling fliers: VEC campaign infuriates wind opponents

ALBANY – Area residents expressed outrage Monday evening that Vermont Electric Cooperative has spent money to lobby members to vote in favor of a power line upgrade that will benefit the Lowell wind project.

“This is propaganda,” shouted Dennis Liddy of Westfield, waving a blue flier sent via mail by VEC and Green Mountain Power.

“It’s irresponsible and reckless,” said Kevin McGrath of Lowell at an information meeting in the Albany Community School gym. “As a member, I can’t believe you put that out. … This here is ridiculous.”

The flier asks members of VEC to “Vote Yes” in support of a transmission system upgrade that would conduct electricity from GMP’s 21 wind turbines proposed for the Lowell ridge line while providing redundancy and increased reliability to the VEC system in the Lowell-Jay area.

David Hallquist, VEC chief executive officer, said the board of directors approved the upgrade and decided to buy power from the Lowell wind project. And the board wants him to explain why to the membership.

“My job is to carry out the will of the board of directors,” Hallquist said. “We are certainly allowed to say why the leadership and the board voted yes [for the upgrade].”

GMP has a certificate of public good from state regulators and announced plans to begin construction of the road system for the turbines in August.

Opponents, most of whom, like Liddy, are VEC members, are lobbying fellow members to vote against the upgrade in hopes of delaying GMP long enough to kill the Lowell wind project. GMP would have to go back to the Public Service Board with another transmission line option. GMP wants to spin its 459-feet-tall turbines by the end of December 2012 to secure federal tax credits to keep the costs of the project down.

Energize Vermont of Rutland, which has coordinated the Lowell wind project opposition, has sent several fliers in the past two weeks urging members to vote no. Seven of nine Orleans County legislators urged members to vote no in an ad campaign.

Both VEC and opponents have used the phones to lobby members.

The ballots were sent by mail and could either be returned by mail or be hand-delivered to the ballot box at a special meeting in Johnson 6 p.m. Tuesday at the VEC headquarters, 42 Wescom Road. Polls close at 6:30 p.m.

Most members who wanted to vote have already done so, but lobbying by VEC and GMP has enraged opponents. About 30 people attended the last informational meeting Monday in Albany.

Liddy demanded to know what VEC paid to mail the fliers and to hold all the evening meetings where VEC leaders urged members to vote in favor of the power line upgrade and the two other items on the ballot.

Hallquist said the elected board of directors set aside about $20,000 to $30,000 for the lobbying campaign, including for advertising in local newspapers, 34,000 fliers in the mail and for the time spent by VEC officials at meetings.

GMP paid toward the fliers.

Hallquist said he didn’t receive any extra pay for all the extra hours he has put in supporting the power line upgrade.

Several in the school gym complained that they didn’t have an elected representative on the board because their district rep resigned in April. Seven people are competing to serve that district on the VEC board.

Hallquist said they have a regional representative on the board as well.

Hallquist said that the policies by the state Legislature have required utilities to seek in-state renewable projects, which make the Lowell wind project necessary.

It would provide 9.6 cents per kilowatt-hour over the 25-year life of the project, far cheaper than the current alternative of 14.5 cents from the proposed Pownal biomass plant, Hallquist said.

“We take advantage of every project we can to save members money,” Hallquist said.

If voters reject the upgrade, that would mean that VEC will have to do the upgrade without GMP financial support within eight years.

And the VEC board would still want to buy electricity from the Lowell wind project even with a no vote because the power will still be the cheapest.

Hallquist said that state regulators have said the Lowell wind project is in the public good.

Several at the meeting said that the PSB rubber-stamps all energy projects.

Hallquist urged Lowell wind opponents to take their arguments to the Legislature and also to fight for change at the table of the VEC board of directors if they so choose.

Hallquist has also urged the members to cast their ballots to see a big enough turnout to show the will of the membership. Usually, only 10 to 15 percent bother to vote in VEC elections.

Until this vote, the VEC board had seen surveys that said that three-quarters of the members support wind projects and other renewable resources.

However, Shirley Nelson, who lives closest to a proposed Lowell wind turbine site, said that people doing those surveys envisioned “cute little Dutch windmills,” not the 459-foot-tall turbines that would go on the ridge line.

If the upgrade is defeated and GMP does not build Lowell wind, VEC will still have the benefit of substation upgrades already begun with GMP financing, officials said.

A smaller upgrade would be sufficient, one member said.

“And would cost the co-op more,” Hallquist said.

There is a mechanism in VEC bylaws for a recount if the margin between “yes” and “no” is less than 5 percent.

If members call for a recount, members for and against the upgrade will participate in the process to make sure it is done correctly, Hallquist said.

He has said he would like to see a significant margin to reveal the will of the membership so there is no doubt.