Vt. Considers Power Plants To Ease Transmission Grid

05/30/12 7:34AM By John Dillon
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Power plants, not power lines, may be in Vermont's future as a way to ease bottlenecks on the state's transmission grid.

The Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO), which operates the statewide grid, is exploring alternatives to building costly new transmission upgrades.

Chris Dutton, VELCO's CEO talked about the potential options at an energy conference in Montpelier for the staff of the New England governors and eastern Canadian premiers.

When the subject is "transmission infrastructure and financing mechanisms," there's usually some mind-numbing jargon involved.

But Dutton didn't lapse into utility-speak. He threw a map up on the screen and pointed to areas around Burlington and Rutland that were outlined by what he called "red blobs."

"What we've done with this picture is try to identify in the red blobs the areas in Vermont where if we were to develop non-transmission alternatives they would have the greatest impact in avoiding or deferring a transmission investment," he said.

The transmission grid always has to balance the electricity being used to the power coming in. Location is key, because, at the most basic level, skinny wires can get overloaded trying to feed areas of high demand. Dutton's red blobs showed places where power projects would be less expensive than new transmission lines.

"In both Rutland and the Burlington area there are potential non-transmission generating alternatives that could be available," he said. "Some of them would cost a lot less than, in the case of the northern transmission investment, $200 million."

In the Rutland area, Dutton said a proposed biomass plant could help stabilize the grid. And to meet the needs near Burlington, electricity could be imported from Hydro-Quebec and fed into the grid, not at the border but through a converter in Chittenden County.

There's also the potential near Burlington for a "peaking" plant - a generator that only runs at times of high demand. Another alternative could be substantial investment in energy efficiency, or demand-side management.

The problem for VELCO and its Vermont utility owners is that they alone may have to pay the full cost of these investments. But transmission projects - if they benefit the New England grid - are shared across the entire region.

In an interview, Dutton said the rules need to be tweaked so that some of the costs of the non-transmission alternatives could be shared regionally.

"Change either the marketing rules or the transmission tariffs so that those objectives are satisfied and so that in fact we can provide the least-cost solution to the transmission requirements that we have," he said.

Right now VELCO is working on an update to its long-range transmission plan. Kerrick Johnson, a VELCO vice president, said the company wants public input.  

"What we're trying to get from the public is an understanding of where we're going to build projects, how big those projects might be, what those projects might cost, and what opportunities we see with our distribution utility owners, to find alternatives other than transmission - so generation and targeted efficiency," he said.

The transmission plan is now out for public comment. VELCO and the state's utilities will also study the non-transmission alternatives - and how to pay for them.

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