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Vermont Electric Co-op members vote to approve line upgrade

JOHNSON – The Vermont Electric Co-op members overwhelmingly approved a 16.9-mile transmission line upgrade on Tuesday night.

Though opponents of the Kingdom Community Wind project had lobbied members to block the special ballot, the results were far from close – the vote was 5,340 to 1,379.

The support at the ballot box bolsters CEO David Hallquist’s assertion that most members believe wind power should be part of the mix. “As of last year, 71% of our members support wind,” Hallquist said.

Activists had hoped to prevail and in so doing delay Green Mountain Power’s plans to begin construction of the 21-turbine wind farm on Lowell Mountain on Aug. 1. The project schedule is tight. Construction must be completed bu Dec. 31, 2012 or else the utility risks losing $40 million in tax credits for the $150 million project.

Co-op officials also pressed members for support of the project in emails, face-to-face meetings and recorded phone messages.

The co-op member referendum on the transmission line upgrade from Lowell to the town of Jay will pave the way for the co-op to receive $7 million from Green Mountain Power for the $12 million project.

The vote was announced shortly after 7 p.m. outside the Vermont Electric Co-op offices after an almost hour-long question-and-answer session with Co-op CEO David Hallquist. Members who were part of the vocal opposition grilled him on the finer points of the upgrade.

More than 100 members filed into the VEC warehouse in Johnson to deliver ballots and hear the verdict. Members from all over the state voiced their concerns about the project’s relationship to Green Mountain Power’s wind project, which came under fire last week after contractors and landowners began illegal pre-construction activities.

“I don’t know if we want to be in bed with these people,” said John Fox of Woodbury.

Hallquist, who answered questions from members, appeared flustered at times as he defended the proposed upgrades. One member heckled Hallquist about his “nice suit” as the CEO tried to keep control of the meeting before the vote was announced.

“We’re focused on rates,” he said, “keeping the rates down.”

Members chided co-op leaders for not offering a survey or other forum for members near the project to voice their opinions sooner.

“People needed to have a voice earlier,” said Carol Maroney of Craftsbury, “and they didn’t.”

Later in the meeting, Hallquist acknowledged that “This is the real first message that we’re getting from our members on this.”

Peggie Sapphire of Craftsbury grilled officials. “I’d like to ask you whether you have calculated the uncalculatable cost of the environmental damage that is going to be wreaked on Lowell Mountain,” Sapphire said.

Hallquist shifted blame toward the state when members questioned the ecological impact of the Green Mountain Power wind project. “That’s the Public Service Board’s job,” he said when pressed about whether or not co-op officials considered the “uncalculatable (sic.)” environmental cost to Lowell Mountain.