Category Archives: Energy

Natural gas pipeline protesters arrested

MONTPELIER – Police arrested 64 people protesting the proposed natural gas pipeline Monday night after some refused to leave the office of Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Several hundred people gathered on the Statehouse lawn Monday afternoon to protest the expansion of Vermont Gas’ pipeline into Addison County, and while some stayed outside, others entered the nearby Pavilion Building, which houses Shumlin’s office.

According to a statement from state police, protesters “proceeded upstairs without authorization and occupied the lobby of the Governor’s office on the fifth floor. Other protestors remained on the first floor of the building, near the elevators.”

According to reports, the protesters wanted Shumlin to withdraw his support for the next stage of the gas pipeline, which will extend into Addison County, beneath Lake Champlain and to the International Paper plant in Fort Ticonderoga, N.Y.

While the Pavilion is open until 5 p.m., police gave protesters until 6:30 p.m. To vacate the building. At 7 p.m., police began escorting protestors outside, where they received a citation for misdemeanor unlawful trespass, which carries a maximum penalty of three months in prison and a $500 fine.

According to police, the arrests occurred “without incident.”

In a statement, Shumlin addressed the incident.

“Peaceful protest is a right deeply embedded in our democracy. I support the right of all sides to be heard, and appreciate the protester’s decision to act respectfully with state staff and law enforcement tonight,” Shumlin said. “While I agree that climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing our state, nation, and world, I disagree with the protester’s position on the natural gas pipeline, which I believe will help hasten our state’s transition away from dirtier fuel oil and help our economy.”

Klein ready to contemplate partial deregulation of electric utilities

State Rep. Tony Klein

State Rep. Tony Klein

The chairman of the House’s top energy committee says it might be time to bring competition back to Vermont’s electricity market.

Rep. Tony Klein, an East Montpelier Democrat, said Tuesday that he’ll entertain a proposal to partially deregulate the state’s utility market, and allow the state’s largest corporate consumers of electricity to negotiate with power dealers outside their service territory.

The proposal comes as large electricity customers bemoan the cost of power than can account for as much as 20 percent of their operating expenses.

“I want to talk about creating a program, a model program, where some of the larger industries can benefit from a deregulated power market for some of their power needs,” Klein said while attending an annual meeting of the Associated Industries of Vermont. “It would be a big deal, but it’s something to think about, because the world is changing.”

Klein said he’s discussed the idea with the Department of Public Service and the Agency of Commerce.

Under the proposal, still in conceptual form, industrial customers would continue to pay the transmission-infrastructure fees assessed by the public utility in whose service territory they reside. But Klein says customers would be able to broker deals for the power flowing through those lines with whatever entity offered the lowest price.

For more on this story, check out tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

Joint committee meeting to review energy projects

MONTPELIER — Suggestions for a new process for how to permit and site wind turbines and other electrical generation projects will be the topic when the House and Senate committees on natural resources and energy hold a joint hearing in Montpelier on Sept. 25.
The hearing is part of a review of how the state’s permit process balances state, local and other interests when it comes to wind, solar and other power projects. That review began with a siting policy commission report stemming from an executive order by Gov. Peter Shumlin last fall.
The joint committees will hear from several parties, including the siting commission’s director and several representatives of state agencies involved in the permit process. The meeting will start at 9:30 a.m. in Room 10 of the Statehouse. Time for public comment is scheduled for 11:15 a.m. For more information go to

Rep. Margaret Cheney named to seat on Public Service Board

Rep. Margaret Cheney, a Democratic legislator from Norwich and the wife of Congressman Peter Welch will serve as the next member of the Public Service Board.

Gov. Peter Shumlin this afternoon announced the appointment of Rep. Margaret Cheney to the three-person panel responsible for vetting utility rates, and approving or denying infrastructure projects related to issues including energy, telecommunications, cable television and water service.

Cheney, a four-term legislator who serves as vice-chairwoman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, will resign her elected post and assume her seat on the board by Oct. 1.

“Margaret brings a critical combination of expertise in policy and public engagement. Her track record as a former journalist, school board chair, teacher, legislator, and vice-chair of a key energy committee is impressive,” Shumlin said in a written statement announcing her appointment. “Her commitment to civic involvement and her familiarity with Vermont energy policy make her a perfect addition to the Board. She also has a keen sense of fairness and is a pleasure to work with. I am very glad that she has agreed to join the Board and help guide Vermont’s energy and telecommunications future.”


Cheney said her experience in the Legislature has helped her to understand the real-world impacts of decisions made by the PSB.

“The Public Service Board plays a critical role in matters of great importance to Vermonters – the cost of electricity, the provision of telecommunication service, and the siting of energy projects, among others,” Cheney in a statement. “As a legislator, I have heard how strongly-felt many of these issues are to Vermonters, and I know how important it is for the Public Service Board to safeguard the public good. I am humbled to be joining the Board and I am honored to take on this responsibility.”

Cheney replaces the outgoing David Coen, who was first appointed to the board by Gov. Howard Dean in 1995, and reappointed by Govs. Dean and Jim Douglas. Coen, by law, will continue working on existing cases until they are resolved.

According to an administration release, Cheney was the managing editor of The Washingtonian magazine in Washington, D.C., for 11 years. More recently, according to the release, she served as a faculty member at Sharon Academy, where she taught courses related to energy and the environment, as well as Spanish. She was a member of the Norwich School Board from 1998 to 2007, according to the release, and a graduate of Harvard University.


Cheney’s a salary will be $86,000, and her six-year term will expire in 2019.

Sanders’ opposition notwithstanding, testimony on wind moratorium begins

Undaunted by the public recriminations issued by Sen. Bernard Sanders Monday, proponents of a moratorium on mountaintop wind began taking testimony Tuesday on a bill  that would halt new development for three years.

The bill suffered a tongue-lashing in Sanders’ Burlington office. It found a more hospitable host in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources today, where three of the committee’s five members – including chairman Bob Hartwell – have signed on as co-sponsors.

First up to testify on the record was Paul Burns, the same wind-energy advocate who had hours earlier suggested that supporting the moratorium was tantamount to rejecting the science behind climate change.

The senators didn’t appreciate his tone.

“Do you believe it’s possible to believe in the science of climate change and yet disagree with you on the construction of new wind farms on Vermont’s mountaintops?” Sen. Peter Galbraith asked the head of VPIRG.

“That’s an interesting question,” Burns replied, suggesting it’s difficult to know which is worse – not believing in climate change and opposing wind because you think it’s unnecessary, or believing global warming is real and fighting against wind anyway.

Galbraith said it’s possible for one to appreciate fully the dangers of climate change, but to believe that the solutions to the global crisis don’t lie on the top of Vermont’s mountains.

Burns said that if climate-change believers want to shun the “most renewable” energy source available in Vermont, then it’s incumbent on them to identify an alternative.

“So far I have not seen any convincing evidence that opponents of wind have come up with a plan to provide for the state’s energy needs with an alternative to wind,” Burns said. “It’s conceivable somebody could come up with fusion technology, but I haven’t seen it yet senator.”

Galbraith told Burns to consider adopting a more civil tone as the debate progresses. A public conversation about wind is one worth having, Galbraith said. And people on his side ought not be demonized by people like Burns as global-warming deniers.

“I guess there are at least three flat-earthers here in this committee, in your view,” Galbraith said. “I wouldn’t characterize your position in an extreme way … And you owe to be respectful to people on the other side and not characterize them in such an extreme way.”

Supporters of the three-year ban, however, are beginning to seem less attached to the moratorium than they are to revising the regulatory process used to approve or deny wind projects. Included in the moratorium bill is a provision that would shift oversight of wind development from the Public Service Board to Act 250. Supporters of wind oppose that move – likely because the PSB’s ability to take into account “public good” gives a huge check in the ‘plus’ column to projects that general megawatts of electricity for use by public utilities.

“Leave the moratorium out of it for a second – let’s pretend the bill is an Act 250 bill,” Hartwell said. “What is wrong with putting (wind projects) in Act 250? We’re not talking about killing off wind. We’re talking about process.”

Supporters of the wind moratorium might have suffered a public attack from Sanders Monday. But the troops might be rallying elsewhere. The Lamoille County Democratic Party is drafting a resolution in support of the moratorium that could come up for a vote at the group’s next monthly meeting.

Republicans struggle for passing grades in VPIRG test

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group has unveiled its legislator report card for the 2011/2012 legislative biennium and, as per usual, most of the A’s are going to D’s.

With a few exceptions, House and Senate Democrats outperformed their Republican counterparts in a test based on 10 floor votes chosen by the nonprofit advocacy group. VPIRG leaders also says it’s a nonpartisan organization, though more than a few Republicans that would argue the point.

The issues range from single-payer health care and a moratorium on fracking to the national popular vote and an expansion of the bottle-bill.

VPIRG counts more than 20,000 “members and supporters” across the state, according to executive director Paul Burns.

“We believe the scorecard can be a useful tool for our members and others to see how their legislators voted on a number of critical state issues,” Burns said in a written statement.

It’s probably worth noting that Republican candidate for governor Randy Brock scored worse in VPRIG’s test than all but one person in the 180-member Legislature. Brock’s score of 20 percent – he got points for supporting the use of green cleaning products in schools and a moratorium on fracking – was second only to the 13-percent grade given to Rep. Tom Burditt, a West Rutland Republican.

Check out the scorecard here:

Senate approves “nuclear option” for merger

The Senate has just pushed the button on the nuclear option, approving in a voice vote an amendment that will prevent utilities from recouping in rates the $21 million they must repay to CVPS customers before any merger can go through.

It’s a move that utility executives have warned could kill the $702 million merger deal between CVPS and GMP. And the Shumlin administration – which has warned legislators against meddling in regulatory affairs – just shipped a press release unloading on the body.

“This matter is now in the hands of the (Public Service) Board. The Senate’s action today interferes with an open PSB docket, undermines the credibility of the regulatory process, and is an extreme overreach of legislative jurisdiction,” Shumlin said in a written statement. Continue reading

All merger, all the time in Montpelier today

The merger is the thing in Montpelier today, where the House and Senate are scheduled to render judgment on a key aspect of the pending consolidation of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service.

At issue, of course, is the manner in which the utilities propose to compensate CVPS ratepayers for bailing the company out of a bad power deal in 2001. Specifically, some lawmakers are angered that the $21 million repayment will be recouped by the utilities in the form of higher rates.  

A mind-bending parade of amendments, amendments to amendments, resolutions and more amendments has come and gone over the past 24 hours. Even as lawmakers near a denouement to this weeks-long political conflagration, it’s unclear exactly what they’ll vote on today, or what the final count will be.

The options are legion, from unapologetic interference in an open regulatory docket, to a delicate wrap on the knuckles delivered in the form of a nonbinding resolution.

An early-morning Senate caucus – lawmakers were strolling the halls well before8 – underscored not only the resonance of the windfall issue but growing frustration over the lack of a legislative vehicle to address it.

Sen. Ann Cummings said she’s intent on passing something that reflects legislators’ strong aversion to the utilities’ payback plan.

“At some level, it offends my sense of fairness and justice … that utilities should be able to take from ratepayers to give back the money they borrowed from them,” Cummings said.

But she said she won’t cast a vote to force the Public Service Board to reject the utilities’ plan. Cummings said she’ll opt instead for a nonbinding resolution that will allow lawmakers to codify their outrage without actually imposing conditions to resolve it.

Sen. Randy Brock said he doesn’t want to interfere in an open docket either. But short of that kind of intervention, he said, the Legislature isn’t going to remedy the problem.

“I do not want to interfere in Public Service Board Dockets – it offends me to do that,” Brock said. “But when you look at our responsibilities as a Senate, it would offend me even more to allow (the $21 million to be recouped) and sit idly by wringing my hands.”

The House, too, faces a slew of options, none of which has emerged as a consensus favorite. An amendment authored in March by Rep. Cynthia Browning calls for the most drastic form of intervention and would, as a condition of the merger, force the utilities to issue checks totaling $21 million to CVPS ratepayers, and not recoup the money in rates.

Another amendment calls for the creation of some kind of board, whose sole purpose would be to represent ratepayers, small business and other groups too poor to lawyer up for PSB proceedings. Rep. Paul Ralston, the Middlebury Democrat who authored that language, says the new board would prevent similar situations in the future.

The House also has a nonbinding resolution, which pretty much asks Commissioner of Public Service Elizabeth Miller to conduct a study to see whether she did a good job negotiating the merger proposal (her department issued a memorandum endorsing the utilities’ plan last month).

Lawmakers pushing for more direct action call the resolution a joke.

Both bodies are on the floor right now, though it could be hours before final votes are cast.

Shumlin opposes utility merger, and also supports utility merger

Does a proposed merger of the state’s two largest electric utilities have the support of the governor?

Depends on when you ask.

In an unexpected turn from his usual pro-merger talking points, Peter Shumlin today revealed that he wishes Central Vermont Public Service was never targeted for acquisition by Green Mountain Power.

The lamentation came during a weekly press conference in his ceremonial Statehouse office, where Shumlin said it’s a shame that CVPS was ever the subject of a takeover bid by GMP’s Montreal-based parent company, Gaz Metro.

“I didn’t ask for this merger. I would prefer that CVPS continue to be owned by CVPS, a Vermont company,” Shumlin said.

Huh? So why did his Department of Public Service late last month issue a memorandum of understanding endorsing the proposed merger?

Shumlin said his hands were tied.

“We don’t get to choose in America, in a free capitalist society, who owns what companies,” Shumlin said. “Companies make those choices.”

In the case of regulated utilities, actually, government plays a pretty significant role in determining who owns what.

Commissioner of Public Service Elizabeth Miller said Wednesday that, as the guardian of public interest, her department could have urged the three-person Public Service Board to reject the plan.

“The department can take any position, from we totally agree to we totally disagree,” said Miller, a Shumlin appointee.

She said, however, that her department has to weigh the merits of any proposed merger against the criteria used by the Public Service Board to evaluate utility proposals. Judged against those standards, she said, the terms of the deal, as negotiated by her department, are in the public’s interest.

Shumlin also thinks the merger is in the public’s interest. As he said Wednesday, “it’s a win for ratepayers, it’s a win for jobs.”

Then again, he thinks “philosophically, if we can have Vermont companies owned by Vermont companies, that’s always my first choice and I suspect Vermonters first choice.”

So there you have it.

Merger windfall on tap in House this week

House Speaker Shap Smith wasn’t kidding when he said he thought the merger windfall issues deserved formal committee deliberations.

According to a schedule posted over the weekend, the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development looks to be dedicating the whole of next week to the proposed merger of Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power.

At issue specifically is how the utilities plan to return $21 million to CVPS ratepayers, who bailed the utility out of a bad power deal in 2001. A group of four House lawmakers has spearheaded a movement to pass an amendment that would require the Public Service Board, as a condition of any merger, to issue $76 checks to approximately 130,000 CVPS customers.

The utilities, by contrast, want to invest $21 million in weatherization and other efficiency programs. Oh yeah – they also want to recoup that $21 million by charging the same ratepayers that bailed them out higher rates in the future.

The conversation kicks off at9 a.m.Tuesday, when attorneys for the Legislature will provide an overview of “merger issues, possible amendment issues.”

The real action looks to be on tap Wednesday, when Reps. Cynthia Browning, Patti Komline, Chris Pearson and Paul Poirier make their case for the proposed amendment.

So far at least, no one from the administration – which has endorsed the utilities’ proposal – is scheduled to testify.

In the Senate, meanwhile, lawmakers this week are expected to fashion their own plan to address the utilities’ proposal, which has engendered similarly severe criticism in that chamber.

One thing we know: lawmakers aren’t going to pass a bill forcing the Public Service Board to do anything. Both Smith and Senate President John Campbell say intervention in an open docket could have catastrophic impacts on the integrity of the regulatory system.

But it sure looks like they’re going to do something. Whether it’s a nonbinding resolution asking the PSB to enforce the issuance of checks, or a formal public shaming of the Shumlin administration for endorsing the deal, it’s hard to imagine leadership departing this session without letting the rank-and-file cast a vote on what has become the biggest political football of 2012.

Opponents of merger windfall earn suprise victory in House

Opponents of a controversial windfall provision in the proposed merger between Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power will have their day in court, as it were.

In a surprise move this afternoon, House leaders allowed a regulatory housekeeping bill to move from the House Committee on Appropriations to the House Committee on Economic Development.

This kind of arcane procedural move wouldn’t generally warrant much notice, but the bill, known as H.718, is one of only two pieces of legislation to which opponents of the $21 million windfall proposal can attach an amendment that aims to nix the utilities’ plan.

Rep. Bill Botzow, chairman of the committee to which bill has been referred, said he plans to convene hearings on the issue early next week. The issue of how $21 million is returned to CVPS ratepayers, he said a few moments ago, is one that deserves an open, robust debate.

“Out of respect for the body, for members and for the people of the state ofVermont, I think it’s appropriate to consider this important issue,” Botzow said.

Rep. Patti Komline, one of the lead proponents of the amendment, said she’s grateful to House Speaker Shap Smith for releasing the bill. Leadership had, until this afternoon, been sitting on the only two bills to which her amendment could be attached.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Komline said.

The hearings, she said, will offer “an opportunity to explain to people a proposal that I think a lot of people still don’t understand.”

The back story by now is familiar to most everyone: pushed to the brink of insolvency by an ill-fated power deal with HydroQuebec, CVPS in 2001 asked the Public Service Board to stave off bankruptcy by forcing customers to pay above-market costs for electricity.

The three-person board granted the request, under one condition: if CVPS ever became financially healthy enough to attract a takeover bid, the utility would have to somehow compensate ratepayers for keeping the company afloat.

The board left open the question of precisely how that compensation should be administered, a vagueness that has sparked an intense debate 11 years later.

Controversy in Montpelier initially sprang from a disagreement over how the $21 million windfall would be returned to ratepayers. Utilities proposed allocating it to a seed fund for efficiency programs; lawmakers, emboldened in part by a well-funded campaign by AARP of Vermont, wanted $76 checks in the pockets of CVPS ratepayers. 

The drama intensified on March 27, when the Department of Public Service unveiled a Memorandum of Understanding between the state and GMP and CVPS.

Only then did lawmakers find out that not only would the $21 million be used for weatherization programs, but that the ratepayers themselves would be billed back, in the form of higher rates, for any money deposited by the utilities into the efficiency fund.

Shock and outrage ensued.

Komline says the “claw back” by utilities effectively requires ratepayers to subsidize their own payback.

The amendment would force the Public Service Board, as a condition of any merger approval, to force utilities to send checks back to ratepayers, and prevent them from recapturing the $21 million in rate base.

Komline has 72 sponsors on the amendment, and says she has at least another 10 reps committed to voting ‘yes.’

Smith, however, is stridently opposed to legislative intervention in an open Public Service Board docket, meaning it’s unlikely he’d allow the hearings on the amendment if he was at all worried that it might pass on the House floor.

Whatever happens, the strategic calculus has changed on both sides of the debate. If nothing else, the move ensures that merger issues will hold center stage in Montpelier for at least another week.

The Merger Drama: How does it end?

The $21 million windfall provision in the proposed merger of Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power has become the odd and unlikely political thriller of 2012.

And while the climax is coming soon – legislative leadership aims to have members out the door before May – no one seems to know yet how this drama will end.

The back story by now is familiar to most everyone: pushed to the brink of insolvency by an ill-fated power deal with HydroQuebec, CVPS in 2001 asked the Public Service Board to stave off bankruptcy by forcing customers to pay above-market costs for electricity.

The three-person board granted the request, under one condition: if CVPS ever became financially healthy enough to attract a takeover bid, the utility would have to somehow compensate ratepayers for keeping the company afloat.

The board left open the question of precisely how that compensation should be administered, a vagueness largely responsible for decibel level of the debate 11 years later.

The controversy in Montpelier bubbled up slowly at first, springing from a disagreement over how the $21 million windfall ought to be returned to ratepayers. Utilities proposed allocating it to a seed fund for efficiency programs; lawmakers, emboldened in part by a well-funded campaign by AARP of Vermont, wanted $76 checks sent directly to CVPS ratepayers. 

Things started getting crazy on March 27, when the Department of Public Service unveiled a Memorandum of Understanding between the state and GMP and CVPS.

Only then did lawmakers find out that not only would the $21 million be used for weatherization programs, but that the ratepayers themselves would be billed back, in the form of higher rates, for any money deposited by the utilities into the efficiency fund.

Shock and outrage ensued.

The debate has tugged at the populist heartstrings of lawmakers from across the political spectrum, more than 70 of whom in the House have signed their names to an amendment that would, as a condition of any merger approval, require the Public Service Board to force utilities to send checks back to ratepayers, and prevent them from recapturing the $21 million in rate base.

The Senate too has joined the battle. Led by Senate President John Campbell, lawmakers downstairs have amped up the rhetoric against a proposal that has been described in turns as “dishonest,” “unjust” and “unfair.”

So many words, but what do they all mean?

Nothing, so far.

Lawmakers had initially hoped escalating political pressure would compel the governor to reopen the MOU. But that’s not going to happen.  

At a press conference Wednesday, Peter Shumlin issued a full-throated defense of his administration’s deal with the power companies.

“My own judgment is that my department negotiated the toughest deal we could get for ratepayers in this merger that’s going to bring real value to customers,” he said.

Asked twice whether it was shareholders, and not ratepayers, who ought to be funding the $21 million windfall provision, Shumlin deflected the inquiry, saying reporters are asking the wrong question.

“I think you’re missing the question – I really feel this strongly,” he said. “The question to me is, how do you take the merger of a utility and get the best possible deal for ratepayers that you can?”

Two key components of the MOU, Shumlin said, offer proof that Commissioner of Public Service Elizabeth Miller “drove (the utilities) as far down the pike as we can get them.”

The rate at which the $144 million in merger-related savings will accrue to utility customers, Shumlin said, has been increased dramatically as a result of government intervention.

VELCO governance, too – at one point the most controversial aspect of this merger deal – has also been largely resolved in an MOU in which Gaz Metro agrees to cede power over the transmission company to a independently governed public-benefits corporation.

As for the thornier issue of where the $21 million comes from?

Shumlin said that when Gaz Metro acquired GMP in 2007 – an acquisition that also involved a ratepayer windfall related to a bad HydroQuebec deal – the Public Service Board approved a plan almost identical to the one outlined in the latest MOU.

Back then, GMP created an $8 million efficiency fund, but collected that investment from customers in the form of higher rates. The savings that accrued to customers as a result of those ratepayer-funded investments, the board ruled in 2007, satisfied the windfall requirements.

“This particular piece happened to be exactly what the Public Service Board ordered the last time we had an identical deal,” Shumlin said. “It seemed logical it would be dealt with in the exact same way.”

With the governor unbowed by political pressure, lawmakers are contemplating their next move.

Rep. Patti Komline, a Dorset Republican, helped author the amendment that looks to intervene in the open PSB docket. But she needs a vehicle to which to attach it, and House leadership is blocking, for now, the only two bills to which the amendment would be germane.

In the Senate, meanwhile, lawmakers are eying the miscellaneous tax bill as a vehicle for some version of a windfall amendment.

But much as he dislikes the utilities’ windfall proposal, Campbell has said he strongly opposes legislative intervention in the quasi-judicial Public Service Board process. So barring a coup, any windfall-related riders on the tax bill won’t go as far as the most ardent opponents would like.

Last week, word spread in the House of a compromise measure that involved a nonbinding resolution. A resolution would offer opponents a chance to register their disdain in a roll call vote, while allowing House and Senate leaders to avoid interfering in the PSB deliberations.

But negotiations in the House are by most accounts nonexistent at this point, with opposing sides communicating mainly through the press.

Under no circumstance will the Legislature will depart the 2012 session with a law dictating to the Public Service Board the terms of the merger.

While Komline has 72 sponsors on her amendment, that doesn’t mean she’s got the votes to win on the House floor. House Speaker Shap Smith hasn’t discouraged members of his caucus from signing on to the amendment – he in fact has reportedly given his blessing to constituents for whom the issue could otherwise become a political liability come election time.

Should Smith feel compelled to undermine Komline’s sponsor list, Democratic support for the amendment would peel off dramatically.

And if the sun rose in the west and the House passed a law interfering in an open Public Service Board docket, then Shumlin would veto the measure forthwith.

So what IS next?

A procedural maneuver in the House could see a floor vote on whether to unblock one of the pieces of legislation to which Komline’s amendment would be germane (they include  a DPS housekeeping bill and a smart meter bill). That vote would almost certainly fail, but would be viewed as a stand-in for a vote on her windfall amendment.

Either late this week or sometime next, the Senate will telegraph its plans for action. Until then, the merger issue will likely continue to command an inordinate share of media attention.

As Shumlin said at the close of his press conference Wednesday:

“I’m glad we had this $21 million, because it’s distracting you guys from the real issues of the day, and we’re getting a lot passed here while you’re focused on it.”

In exchange for ‘major concessions,’ utilities win big endorsement for proposed merger

Huge news this morning fromVermont’s top utility regulator, who says her department will formally endorse a proposed merger between the state’s two largest electric utilities.

In a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Department of Public Service, Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service Corp., the parties have come to agreement on some of the most controversial provisions in the merger deal, including windfall protection and ownership of VELCO.

Commissioner of Public Service Elizabeth Miller said the department signed on to the deal only after winning “major concessions” from the utilities. The proposed agreement now goes to the Public Service Board, the three-person independent panel ultimately responsible for approving the merger.  

Miller said in a statement that the concessions “significantly increase (the merger’s) value to customers and to Vermontas a whole.”

Negotiations over the merger have centered largely on three issues: ownership of VELCO, the state’s electric transmission company; a windfall-sharing provision to compensate CVPS ratepayers for bailing out the utility in 2001; and how to split projected savings associated with the merger between shareholders and ratepayers.

Miller said the deal will prevent Green Mountain Power from wielding majority control over VELCO by requiring the consolidated utility to give up seats on the transmission company’s governing board, and by transferring about one-third of its VELCO ownership to a nonprofit public benefit corporation.

Miller said the utilities will satisfy the windfall-sharing provisions by investing $21 million in weatherization and efficiency programs, including $12 million in the first year and another $6 million by the end of 2013.

Pending legislation inMontpelierwould require the utility to satisfy the windfall provision by sending checks totaling $21 million directly to CVPS’ 137,000 customers.

The deal also hastens the rate at which projected savings are used to reduce rates for customers. The deal is expected to shave $144 million from operating costs over the next decade, though, under the utilities’ initial proposal, ratepayers wouldn’t have seen any substantial benefit until years six-through-10 of the merger.

Lawmakers look to impose will on GMP/CVPS merger proposal

A coalition of lawmakers will look to sway the terms of a blockbuster utility merger with a proposed amendment to a renewable-energy bill Wednesday.

In a morning press conference at the Statehouse, lawmakers from all three major parties will introduce language that would effectively force the consolidated utility to pay ratepayers at Central Vermont Public Service Corp. a direct cash payment before any merger deal goes through.

The amendment, sponsored by Reps. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington), Patti Komline (R-Dorset), Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) and Paul Poirier (I-Barre), deals with a so-called “windfall protection” clause that has become one of the more controversial aspects of the proposed merger between Green Mountain Power and CVPS.  

CVPS hit a financial rough patch early in the last decade when its long-term power contract with Hydro-Quebec forced the utility to pay above-market rates for wholesale electricity.

To stave off financial calamity, CVPS sought permission for a rate hike from the Public Service Board in excess of what the board’s conventional rate-setting formula would otherwise allow.

The board okayed the increase, but stipulated that ratepayers would be made whole if CVPS ever became financially healthy enough to attract a takeover bid.

AARP is leading a public campaign to make sure those cash payments are issued before the merger goes through. The $21 million AARP says is due to ratepayers amounts to $76 for each of CVPS’ 137,000 residential customers. Commercial customers would enjoy payouts of about $352 on average, and industrial businesses could see checks in excess of $12,500.

GMP says it’s satisfied the windfall protection clause by offering to invest $40 million in an efficiency program that officials say would reap ongoing savings for all ratepayers. AARP and many lawmakers say it’s a raw deal however, and want cash in the pockets of customers.

The amendment will likely be ruled not germane to the underlying renewable energy bill. But lawmakers will have made their point. The opinions that matter most, of course, are those belonging to the three members of the Public Service Board, which has ultimately say over the terms of any merger deal.

Doyle survey out; wind power question sparks controversy

The annual “Doyle poll” that will be available at town meetings across the state this Tuesday is intended to take the pulse of Vermonters on the hot political issues of the day, and one of the questions this year is already generating controversy.

Sen. Bill Doyle, a Washington County Republican, first used the survey as a freshman lawmaker in 1969 to gauge Vermonters’ opinions about a major proposal to enact a sales tax, and he has used the survey every year since.

The unscientific yet entertaining survey has a question this year about building wind turbines on Vermont ridgelines. Utility-scale wind power has been the focus of explosive debates in the last year, particularly when it comes to a project in Lowell being developed by Green Mountain Power.

One of the 14 questions on the Doyle survey is straightforward enough: “Should wind turbines be built on Vermont ridgelines?”

But a group that opposes the Lowell project has linked the Doyle survey question to an ad campaign launched recently by Renewable Energy Vermont, a trade association for clean energy businesses.

A group called “Ridge Protectors” that opposes the Lowell project said in a news release this week that the “feel good” television advertising campaign by Renewable Energy Vermont is designed to influence Vermonters so they check the “yes” category on the Doyle survey’s wind power question.

“Senator Doyle’s survey is something we look to as an indicator of Vermonters’ opinions on issues of the day – not how much Vermonters have been moved by advertising,” Steve Wright, one of the most vocal opponents of the Lowell project, said in a news release.

Gabrielle Stebbins, the executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, said the ads are not designed to sway the Doyle survey results.

“Certainly not,” she said. “Realistically, there has been pretty much a one-sided debate by a variety of players about wind, and REV just really felt it was critical that some of the erroneous and false statements be corrected.”

Asked about the timing of the ads, Stebbins said “it’s more an issue of when we’ve been able to get to work on the project.”

She added that government reports that favor wind power have come out just recently.

Other Doyle survey questions this year ask Vermonters if they think Gov. Peter Shumlin is doing a good job, whether people are optimistic about the future of Vermont and the nation, and whether possessing small amounts of marijuana should continue to be a crime.

His poll may be unscientific, Doyle said, but he believes it reflects Vermonters’ views given the large number of responses he gets.

“I really believe in general when you do 15,000 you’re really getting a reflection of the state of Vermont ,” said Doyle.

Doyle also argued there’s “nothing magic about professional polls,” pointing to a flawed poll during the gubernatorial race between Jim Douglas and Doug Racine in 2002.