JUICE: Chino Hills Transmission Sparks

By Published On: May 10, 2013

As it gets ready to decide whether to require a short segment of a $2 billion 225-mile-long transmission line to run underground through Chino Hills, the California Public Utilities Commission faces new questions about whether an approximately 50-mile-long segment crossing the city and many other communities is needed. So much has changed since the line originally was conceived in 2005 that completing the segment may be a waste of money at this point, Division of Ratepayer Advocates senior utility engineer Charles Mee maintains. His office is urging the commission to take a little more time to reexamine the need for it at all. Among the major changes are more renewable energy developments to the east, more rooftop solar, and more demand-response programs in place, not to mention changes in the economy. Yet, the CPUC is racing to make a decision in June after it suspended construction of the segment in 2011 and ordered Southern California Edison—which is building the project—to assess the feasibility of running it underground for 3.5 miles in Chino Hills. The new transmission line—known as the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project—is designed to bring 4,500 MW of wind and solar power from the mountainous area into Edison’s service territory. This will help the state attain its 33 percent renewable energy standard. It’s also designed to meet a growing need for power, according to Edison and others. The line is supposed to be completed by 2015 to tie into the grid a number of renewable energy projects being planned and built in its anticipation. The CPUC initially gave Edison the green light to build the transmission line in 2009, two-and-one-half years after the utility first sought the commission’s permission. It’s being built in segments from the Tehachapi Mountains in Southern Kern County in a southerly direction to a substation in Montebello in the heart of populous Los Angeles County. It then turns east to run to a substation in Ontario in San Bernardino County. After conducting engineering studies, Edison estimates that running it underground through Chino Hills would cost somewhere between $368 million to $722 million and take years, which would delay completion of the overall project. Stringing it along 200 foot tall towers already in place in Chino Hills would cost just another $4 million and take about three months. Based on the added cost alone, Edison is calling on the commission to reject the underground option and lift its construction suspension order so it can finish the segment as planned. “It really comes down to the fact that 12 million people would have to pay for a few hundred people to have a better view,” said Edison spokesperson Kit Cole. If the commission does not order Edison to build the line underground Chino will have no remaining recourse because it already has lost an appeal concerning the project to the California Supreme Court. The only reason the underground option is being weighed at all is that the commission decided to reconsider the portion that runs through Chino Hills in 2011 after touring the community and seeing the proximity of the large towers to homes. That’s got the renewable energy industry and Edison crying foul because the issue already was decided and, indeed, construction of the line in Chino Hills was 80 percent complete. ‘This suggests there’s never any end to those discussions,” said V. John White, Center for Energy Efficiency & Renewable Technologies executive director. Renewable energy companies building wind and solar facilities would be hurt if the line isn’t finished on time because they might be unable to sell all the power they generate. Edison senior manager of major transmission projects Charles Adamson said that any delay in completing the line would cause some curtailment of the generators. He added, however, that any attempt to value the economic loss to project operators at this point is “speculative.” City spokesperson Denise Cattern cites another concern: namely, that 3,500 people live within 500 feet of the right-of-way and will hear the crackle and buzz of the lines. The already in-place towers loom above backyard patios and swimming pools in the affluent community, which has fought to run the line along a different route through the area since 2007. Residents have health concerns about exposure to electromagnetic fields from the high voltage 500 kV line, which would run within 150 feet of their homes. Only one other line as big runs as close to homes in the U.S.—in Cobb County, Georgia. Adamson said the utility has assessed the fields and done what it can to mitigate them. It generally follows World Health Organization guidelines for its facilities, he said. Yet, he acknowledged there is still some uncertainty regarding potential health risks posed by the high voltage lines. But the biggest question may be on the need for the eastern leg of the project. The Division of Ratepayer Advocates maintains things in the power market have changed so much since the project initially was conceived in 2005 that completing the eastward leg would constitute a misallocation of money at Edison ratepayers’ expense. “Basically, you’ll really overbuild the system,” said the division’s Mee. In testimony given in the proceeding on whether to run the line underground through Chino Hills, he pointed out the new renewable resources to the east of the Los Angeles area could supply the Inland Empire region of San Bernardino and Riverside County. Edison, he said, is spending $1 billion to upgrade transmission facilities in the eastern area to serve load that the eastern leg of the Tehachapi line originally was intended to serve. On top of that, he said, changing circumstances in Los Angeles County may result in most of the power from the Tehachapi line being sopped up there before the line turns east to Ontario. For instance, coastal power plants are expected to close down under a state mandate to protect marine life and it’s uncertain whether they will be rebuilt. DRA, said Mee, believes the administrative law judge in the proceeding needs to consider that if less power travels along the eastern leg of the line it will provide less benefits to ratepayers. Accordingly, DRA asked the CPUC on April 5 to widen the scope of the proceeding to consider not just whether to run the line overhead or underground through Chino Hills, but to reconsider the need for the whole eastern segment. The commission denied the request April 15. Mee indicated the commission still should consider that the initial transmission planning study done for the Tehachapi line focused largely on the need to interconnect renewable energy facilities to the grid and to relieve congestion north of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. The path of the line through the populous metropolitan area and the actual need for power were not adequately considered, he said. Since the 2006 study, he said, transmission planning has become more dynamic and holistic taking into consideration numerous factors, including the proliferation of distributed generation, the advance of smart grid technology and its ability to deliver reliable demand response resources, and the wider net of power supplies and transmission projects. Another factor is the change in the economic fortunes of the region, particularly the Inland Empire where unemployment is high and the housing market crash is taking the bloom off rosy assumptions about growth. While things are beginning to look up, according to Inland Empire Economic Partnership economist John Husing, the area has to dig out of an unemployment and real estate vacancy hole that’s deeper than in many other areas of the state, including the coastal counties to the west. In-migration to the inland area by coastal residents searching for affordable housing has all but stopped, according to the Partnership. It had been fueling rapid growth in the area prior to the recession in 2007 when the Tehachapi project with its eastern leg was planned. This may point to the need for both ditching the ditch for underground lines—as well as toppling the towers. The commission should at least look at whether progress has outpaced its earlier decision.

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