Bad investments

It looks like the legislature is cooling off on forcing Green Mountain Power and CVPS to sell their interests in Velco to the state.

For those not following the blow-by-blow on this one, GMP — Vermont’s second-largest utility — is buying CVPS — Vermont’s largest utility; as both own large minority stakes in Velco, Vermont’s transmission company, that would give the new, larger GMP majority control of Velco. GMP, recognizing this might be an issue, volunteered to sell its majority position.

Enter Vince Illuzzi, Vermont state senator from the Northeast Kingdom. One of his pet peeves is the possibility someone (likely Velco) would build a powerline connecting Quebec’s massive hydroelectric operations through Vermont to the Boston/New York grids. Someone is in fact working on a line like that, with a projected path through New Hampshire, although the final path is far from determined.

Illuzzi’s proposed solution would be to have Vermont buy a controlling interest in Velco, although of course he didn’t couch it in those terms; he instead talked about what a great investment opportunity it might be. Cooler heads seem to have prevailed (although Illuzzi’s backers are blaming it on “utility lobbyists).”

What’s wrong with Vermont owning its transmission lines? Nothing if it is simply an arm’s length transaction to invest in and profit from our own infrastructure, perhaps through a vehicle like the state employee retirement funds. They need to be invested somewhere; why not Vermont? But siting anything in Vermont is a challenge, often a legal challenge. Velco is currently being challenged in court over putting up a single cell tower in the Wells area, by a Russian emigre/artist couple who bought somebody’s mountaintop compound in order to get away from things like cell phones … although Velco has a permanent lease for a cell tower on the property, dating back to the previous owner. It’s been a nasty, nasty battle, with plenty of acrimony and name-calling.

That’s a fight best left between private developers and the landowners; as was the lengthy fight over upgrading the “southern loop” power lines. Or the fight over putting a proposed transmission line from James Bay to Jersey. If we don’t want to build our own power here (gas plants, garbage incinerators and wind power all having been rejected as not “Vermonty” enough), we’re going to have to string line somewhere from somewhere else. It’s not a moot point. Given that we’ve signed onto buying enormous amounts of Quebec-generated electricity for the next 20 years, we need high-voltage power lines over somebody pastoral Vermont countryside. Building and maintaining them is Velco’s job.

The state has an oversight role, through the Public Service Board and Dept. of Public Service. It would be wise to stop right there. Adding political fights to the already detailed permitting process would mire even needed projects down in an unnecessary level of complexity.

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