Vernon prepares for gas plant vote

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VERNON >> Residents are getting ready for a non-binding referendum vote on whether a natural gas plant is preferred and their concerns were aired again on the night of Wednesday, Feb. 3.

"It's got siting factors. It's just the economics. Do they make sense?" Planning Commission Chairman Bob Spencer told the Reformer following the public forum. "I wouldn't be surprised if they (developers) went to New Hampshire."

The forum marked a second meeting hosted by the commission in relation to a potential gas-powered electrical plant that would go up somewhere outside Vermont Yankee, a nuclear plant currently in the decommissioning stage.

While the developers have no firm proposal on site or design, they are seeking community approval. On March 1, voters will be asked about their feelings on the project which could have positive effects for Vernon, where there are concerns about increasing tax rates and dwindling real estate values due to the closure of Vermont Yankee.

"It's been kind of frustrating for us because we've been meeting with this group for a year and a half," said Spencer. "So it's a concept and we have a lot of questions. And you guys have a lot of questions."

Without a plan written in stone, resident Dale Gassett said the project would be a tough sell to the community.

"People would have much more of a comfort level if they had an idea of exactly where the plant was going to be," he said.

Developers approached Miller Farm about buying land for the gas plant but no deal has been reached yet. In the past, the family has turned down developers seeking to use their property for solar farms.

"We would rather be farming than be in the center of conflict," Art Miller said before running through various energy alternatives. "To us, the gas plant seems a very viable option for us to consider. My understanding is the state of Vermont produces about 15 percent of the power the state uses right now so it has this huge gap within the state."

The footprint, being close to Vermont Yankee and Vernon Elementary School, raised concerns for resident Dave Webb, who has been vocal on potential effects on children. He wondered whether a machine tool company could be persuaded to come to town instead and bring more jobs than what's anticipated with the gas plant. His comments received a loud round of applause.

"I live a quarter mile from the nuke plant. I got a 3-year-old daughter. These are the kinds of questions that need to be answered before we can take a non-binding referendum vote," said Webb. "My gosh. Can we think about our kids?"

Developer Don Campbell, of Transitional Transmission Partners, said details provided at the forum were arrived at by looking at data, preexisting infrastructure and plans for a pipeline. More transparency could be expected after the vote, he told attendees, and public buy-in would lead to his group going to private investors.

"We've just been suggesting ideas," Campbell said. "It is something of a sun, the moon, the stars alignment here. VY closes. That opens up the substation. The pipeline is routing some seven miles in the direct path from where we are. And it's worth considering. We're not actively selling this as the right thing."

The commission has taken no formal stance on the gas plant. Worries over grid reliability and the loss of power generation in New England were mentioned at the forum. So was Kinder Morgan's Northeast Energy Direct Pipeline, currently in the permitting process.

The $3.3 billion project will see pipelines built from Pennsylvania to Dracut, Mass., to expand the supply of natural gas and electric generating capacity in New England, explained commission member Martin Langeveld. The pipeline would run through western Massachusetts to Northfield, Mass., a nearby town to Vernon. Service is expected by November 2018.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Langeveld said, Vermont Yankee accounted for 80 to 90 percent of Vernon's total grand list. Since 1998, the plant made up only 40 percent of it.

"With the plant closed, it's basically going to come off the tax rolls entirely," he said. "Right now, it is taxed at $230 million. The tax rate is 46 cents per $100 valuation."

The town and plant owner Entergy are in discussions now over future property valuations. Langeveld said if the property's assessed value goes down to $100 million, the tax rate goes up to 64 cents. The figure does not include the school taxes.

The 600 megawatt gas plant would be nearly equivalent in generation capacity as Vermont Yankee, taking up approximately 40 acres during construction and 20 acres afterwards. A power block 50 or 60 feet high with a stack 200 to 215 high, the same as Vermont Yankee's existing stack, would connect to the current Velco switchyard and substation. The equipment would connect to the pipeline expected to be built in New Hampshire. The cost would be about $750 million.

For construction, 400 to 600 jobs could be coming to Vernon over a 18- to 24-month period. The gas plant would likely employ 25 to 30 people once built, not including contractors hired to handle outages and maintenance.

"This is not another VY in terms of employment levels," said Langeveld. "Obviously, there's a little multiplier effect, meaning that if you create 25 or 30 jobs, somewhere out there it creates another 10 to 15 jobs in other areas just because people are spending their money locally and it would help to stabilize local real estate values, which I think we're seeing fluctuating a little bit right now."

Langeveld said there are many places where gas is seen as "the best possible way to balance out your energy supply when you have a lot of solar and wind in the mix," saying the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine all of the time. Gas is looked at as a clean, cost effective option as a back-up power source.

An explosion at a Middletown, Conn., gas plant happened during its start-up phase, Langeveld told the audience, and a lot of lessons were learned. The plant was not yet operating.

The commission looked at the issue of fracking as one the town could not address or solve, said Langeveld. The release of methane is one cause of concern.

"All of us here are customers or beneficiaries of gas and oil extracted using fracking techniques," he said. "Whether it's fracked or not, natural gas is cleaner than other possible sources of energy."

Spencer said many concerns will be addressed during permitting processes in which two certificates of public good will be required. Questions regarding environmental impact, usually handled through Act 250 permits, would come up during hearings before any CPGs were issued. The developers' biggest hurdle in this department would be the air pollution control permit, estimated to take about two years to obtain.

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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