Jun 23, 2023

Upgrades planned to major Franklin County power line

The company that operates Vermont’s electric transmission system plans to replace a key power line in Franklin County over the next several years, saying the project will increase the state’s capacity for ferrying renewable energy throughout New England.

Vermont Electric Power Co.’s “K-42” line runs from Highgate in the north to Georgia in the south, and it’s a major transmission path for energy from Quebec and wind and hydroelectric power that’s produced in Vermont, the Rutland-based company says.

But officials from the grid operator say the roughly 16.5-mile line, which was built in 1958, could soon become unsafe if it isn’t upgraded. Close to 70% of the 212 H-shaped structures supporting the existing 115-kilovolt line need to be replaced due to age or damage from sources such as wildlife, according to project documents.

Plans are to replace the two-pole, wooden structures with steel monopoles that the company says would require less maintenance and be more resilient to extreme weather. The new line also would employ a “bundled” conductor design aimed at reducing energy losses, project documents state.

In addition, the company says the new line would be built to allow additional space in the company’s existing right-of-way for a second power line in the future, should operators find a need for more grid capacity through the area.

ISO New England, the organization that oversees New England’s power grid, estimates that the region will see massive increases in demand for electric power from renewable sources over the next decade, both for heating buildings and for transportation.

But the region’s grid cannot always handle the amount of energy that’s fed into it. In those cases, operators may limit the energy the grid accepts from power generators, such as wind farms, to avoid overloading the system — which could cause blackouts.

In northern Vermont, the power grid already has more renewable energy than it can handle, and more than locals need. When power generators are told to cut back on energy production, they lose money, and the cost is ultimately passed on to ratepayers.

“This Franklin County line upgrade project will create more headroom, more space, more opportunities for additional in-state generation,” said Kerrick Johnson, Vermont Electric Power Co.’s chief innovation and communications officer.

Johnson declined to provide specifics on the amount of electricity that the K-42 line carries because he said those details are considered “critical energy infrastructure information” by the federal government, and he’s obligated not to discuss them.

Still, the line is “an integral part of the grid,” said Lou Cecere, a planning engineer at the state’s Department of Public Service, and it “contributes to reliability for not just the local area, but also for Vermont and for the region as a whole.”

Project documents show the new line would be about 75 feet tall, a 30-foot increase, and get shifted about 10 to 15 feet to the east within the company’s right-of-way. That would allow the existing line to stay in use while the new one is built, avoiding further strain on other parts of the region’s power grid during construction, Johnson said.

The wooden poles would be torn down once the new steel line is completed. Vermont Electric Power Co. estimates the project would cost about $65 million. Construction is expected to begin in 2024, with all of the work completed two years later.

The company held public meetings this fall in the four towns that the line runs through: Highgate, Swanton, St. Albans Town and Georgia. The town managers in Swanton and St. Albans Town, the two most populous communities along the route, said they hadn’t heard any concerns from residents so far about the proposed new power line.

Since the line has been in its current place since the 1950s, Johnson said, the company has found obstacles on some properties that weren’t there when the line was built, such as sheds and trees, and needs to negotiate some new agreements with landowners.

The line largely passes through forested land in Franklin County, company officials told the St. Albans Town Selectboard at a meeting about the project earlier this year.

The project has not yet gone before the state’s Public Utility Commission for approval. Officials said they expect the permitting process will take place next year.

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VTDigger's northwestern Vermont reporter. More by Shaun Robinson

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