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Vermont Electric approves line upgrade needed for Lowell wind project

Members of Vermont’s third-largest electric utility decided overwhelmingly Tuesday that their company should share a transmission line with a controversial wind energy project.

The vote among Vermont Electric Cooperative Inc. members was 5,340 to 1,379 in favor of upgrading a transmission line between Lowell and Jay under an agreement with Green Mountain Power Corp. Co-op officials pitched the plan as a way to save members’ money on an upgrade that had to be done anyway.

“I think this vote was really about rates,” co-op Chief Executive Officer David Hallquist said Tuesday night.

Green Mountain Power will use the line to transmit power from its planned Kingdom Community Wind project, which made the co-op vote highly charged. The 21-turbine project has deeply divided nearby communities, with some in support of the renewable-energy source and the revenue it will bring to local towns, and others opposed to towering turbines atop Lowell Mountain and the project’s effect on wildlife and the surrounding environment.

Opponents had hoped a defeat of the $12 million transmission line upgrade would send a message of opposition to the wind project and delay construction of the turbines.

“We’re obviously disappointed,” said Lukas Snelling of the group Energize Vermont, which opposes the project.

He said co-op members are spread over a wide geographical area, and those who live far from Lowell cast their vote due to rates, while those closer to the project are worried about the effect the turbines will have. He also cited $55,000 the co-op spent promoting the upgrade as a factor.

Snelling said opposition to the wind project will continue. Two towns are challenging the state Public Service Board’s approval of the project, and opponents plan to weigh in on applications for various permits related to the project, Snelling said.

Green Mountain Power has halted preliminary work on the Lowell site after discovering last week that 10 trees had been cut down prematurely, and land in a wildlife easement area was disturbed by third parties. The utility hopes to start full construction on the wind project by Aug. 1 and complete it by the end of 2012.

Results of the co-op vote were announced Tuesday night after members had three weeks to vote by mail or in person Tuesday evening at the co-op’s Johnson headquarters. Most co-op votes are low-key, with few members responding. Hallquist said he amazed at the interest this one generated. About 24 percent of the co-op’s 34,000 members cast ballots, Hallquist said.

Co-op members were voting on whether to approve upgrading the 16.9-mile transmission line, with Green Mountain Power paying $7 million to upgrade the transmission line between Lowell and Jay and use the line to transmit power from the wind project. That would leave Vermont Electric Co-op $5 million of the upgrade cost. The co-op also would buy power from the Lowell wind project for 9.6 cents per kilowatt hour for 25 years, which Hallquist said was a relatively good deal for renewable energy.

Without the agreement, the co-op faced a cost of $8.9 million to upgrade the 16.9-mile line to the capacity it needs without Green Mountain Power. Hallquist said the increased cost would mean increased electric rates for co-op members.

Hallquist said surveys have indicated co-op members support increased use of wind power and lower rates. Tuesday’s results support those findings, he said.

Green Mountain Power officials have said that if co-op members had defeated the upgrade, GMP would have found another way to transmit the power, though it might have been more expensive and would have taken longer to arrange.

Co-op voters also approved two other items: a power contract with Hydro-Quebec starting in 2012, and a change in the co-op’s bylaws to allow for a system of disbursing excess funds if necessary.

Members in the Northeast Kingdom also were voting to elect a new representative to the co-op board of directors. Carol Maroni of Craftsbury won with 371 votes, leading six other candidates.

Vermont Electric Co-op, based in Johnson, provides electric service in 74 towns across the Northeast Kingdom and in parts of Addison, Chittenden, Franklin, Grand Isle and Lamoille counties.