Going Against the Current
It might seem hypocritical to erect billboards along Route 7 in Vergennes asking passersby if they're concerned about threats to Vermont's visual landscape. But that's exactly what some concerned Addison County residents did last week. Apparently, the signs don't violate Vermont's ban on billboards since they're mobile and voice a political statement. The 8-by-16-foot billboards, which hang on hay wagons, read: "Are you concerned about Vermont's scenic beauty, cancer, energy independence?" and "VELCO's power line upgrade' is no answer."
Haven't heard about VELCO's power-line upgrade? That's not surprising. The proposal, formerly known as the Northwest Vermont Reliability Project, has generated scant media coverage or public debate, despite its size and potential impact on the region. VELCO -- the Vermont Electric Power Company -- is the utility that builds and maintains the state's transmission grid. On June 5, VELCO asked the Public Service Board for permission to upgrade its high-voltage lines between Rutland and Burlington. If the project is approved, VELCO will build a new, 345,000-volt line between West Rutland and New Haven alongside existing lines and significantly increase the capacity of its power lines now running between New Haven and Burlington. In layman's terms, this means bigger, taller high-voltage lines strung along a 75-mile route.
VELCO argues that the upgrades are needed to meet the ever-growing demand for power in northwestern Vermont, particularly in Chittenden and Franklin counties. Between 1999 and 2002, electricity demand in the peak summer months increased by 9 percent, hitting an all-time high of 1023 megawatts in August 2002. According to VELCO, the existing grid was built more than 30 years ago and its capacity has not kept pace with the region's growth. The company warns that, without the upgrade, Vermont faces the threat of a major blackout like the one last August that crippled the East Coast and left millions of Americans in the dark from New York City to Ohio.
But opponents of the plan argue that VELCO has failed to consider smaller, cheaper and more environmentally friendly solutions for beefing up its energy reliability. They say Vermont could accomplish the same goals by investing in energy efficiency and local, small-scale electricity generation. Such alternatives, they contend, would not mar the landscape with massive high-voltage towers or increase Vermont's dependence on out-of-state energy, most of which is generated with nuclear or fossil fuels.
Opponents also warn that the new power lines will have a detrimental impact on tourism and property values along the 75-mile corridor. And they're afraid it will create a greater public-health threat due to the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) generated by high-voltage wires.
For years, EMF radiation has been a controversial and hotly debated topic. Several Vermont groups, including Vermont Citizens for Safe Energy, claim that EMFs cause cancer and other health problems for people living near the lines. Finally, they argue that despite VELCO's claim that it has held more than "100 meetings over the past two years" to inform the public about the project, many affected residents are just now learning of it, and may have missed the chance to raise questions or concerns.
Eben Markowski is one of the Vergennes residents who erected the billboards. Though he's no expert on energy policy, "I'm a citizen who's been forced to take a crash course in power lines," he says. Markowski is concerned that VELCO is moving ahead too quickly for all the affected residents and municipalities to fully grasp the project's ramifications. "It's such a fast-paced, technical and legal process that it's making everyone's heads spin," Markowski says. "Even people who are lawyers are unfamiliar with this ground, because it's a very technical, utility, land-rights legal matter."
The original route would have run the lines right past Markowski's home. But due to public outcry, VELCO has decided to bypass Vergennes. Nevertheless, Markowski and other residents remain opposed to it. And he thinks residents of Chittenden and Franklin counties would also oppose it if they knew all the facts. "No one in this battle, as far as I know, has had the NIMBY response," Markowski says. "We don't want it over anyone's house. We should be promoting conservation and innovation, not this stupid transmission line."
Opponents point out that even modest investments in energy efficiency have proven successful at reducing Chittenden County's energy demand. For example, the Burlington Electric Department reports that it now uses 5 percent less electricity than it did in 1989 despite the city's growth, all due to efficiency efforts.
Mark Sinclair is a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, which opposes the power-line upgrade. Sinclair claims that state law does not allow VELCO to build new transmission lines if the problem can be addressed more cost-effectively through energy efficiency. And he contends that Vermont "hasn't even scratched the surface on reducing demand.
"This is probably the most important energy decision we're going to make in our lifetimes," Sinclair adds about the $120 million upgrade. "If energy efficiency doesn't work, we can always build transmission lines in the future."
A VELCO spokesperson couldn't be reached for comment before press time. But in the past, VELCO has argued that the project must be built by 2007 or risk losing regional cost-sharing dollars. In fact, the Public Service Board appears to be moving rapidly towards its decision. But Sinclair doesn't think the rush is as critical as VELCO has made it out to be. As he puts it, "It's not like the lights are going out tomorrow."