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High voltage power line

08/01/03 12:00AM By Timothy McQuiston
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(Host) Commentator Timothy McQuiston says that Governor Jim Douglas is about to get his chance at figuring out how to address Vermont's problematic energy future.

(McQuiston) Howard Dean tried it, and failed. Even Madeleine Kunin tried it, and couldn't get it done. Her effort involved the legendary Champlain natural gas pipeline, which would have run from the Canadian border south into Rutland across the state to Springfield and into New Hampshire. A spur would have run south through Windham County and into a Massachusetts electric plant.

Dean's chance came with a proposal to run a gas line from Albany, New York, to Bennington and then, again, to generating plants in Rutland.

In both cases, the idea was to bring natural gas to regions that didn't have it, primarily Rutland, but also to Bennington in the one case and Springfield in the other. Dean's pipeline would have had the added benefit of buidling a large baseload electric plant.

Kunin and Dean supported the pipeline proposals for economic development reasons. The natural gas, at least then, would have lowered heating costs in the affected regions, and manufacturers were excited.

But besides environmental issues, the projects had complex business plans that at their best would have required many variables to fall into place. At their worst, they were pie in the sky projects that were mis-timed. But neither pipeline worked out, and both governors were battered by the process.

Now it's Governor Douglas's turn, and it appears that he may have it easy by comparison.

The Vermont Electric Power Company, known as VELCO, is proposing an upgrade of electric transmission lines between Rutland and Burlington. The $128 million project would upgrade 25 substations, improve a power line from New Haven to South Burlington. And, here's the kicker: it would build a new 345,000-volt line running from West Rutland to New Haven, alongside a lower capacity line.

Ignore VELCO's argument that Vermonters will only have to pay $12 million of the total cost. Yes, the entire New England grid will help pay for this, but in turn we help pay for projects in Hartford and Boston.

Environmentalists and neighbors are already scowling over the size of the new towers rising 79 feet into the air, or 27 feet taller than the old line. Fenway Park's Green Monster is only 37 feet high. Opponents also note that investing that kind of money in conservation would bring energy savings without more construction.

Vermont is third in the nation in electric costs, but only 30th in electric bills. We're great at conservation, but at some point we'll need more capacity, especially in the economically vibrant and important Burlington area.

And even though this project isn't as dodgy as those pipelines were, Douglas will have his hands full getting this project accepted by both regulators and the public. It'll take a year or more just to get it through the acceptance phase.

But at this early point, it looks like a worthy project. And one that looks as if it might actually make it.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.
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