California regulators release contradicting proposals for Tehachapi

After years of wrangling, reams of legal filings, and months of testimony, evidentiary hearings, and ex parte meetings, an administrative law judge (ALJ) for the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the commission’s chairman are at odds over whether the portion of the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project (TRTP) that will extend through the city of Chino Hills, Calif., should be constructed aboveground or placed underground as the city requested (Docket No. A07-06-031).

The proposed decision issued by ALJ Jean Vieth late in the day on June 11 recommended denying the city of Chino Hills’ petition for an underground alignment.

“While underground construction of … the single circuit, two cables per phase design … is feasible and could be completed on a timely basis, the cost is prohibitive and should not be borne by ratepayers at large for the benefit of the few,” Vieth wrote in her proposed 71-page ruling.

Her proposed ruling estimated the cost of undergrounding within a range from $268m to $296m, a range of $77m to $85m per mile. Put another way, Vieth said, “For each of the 220 houses that borders the right-of-way, the cost is on the order of $1.2-$1.3m per house.”

CPUC President Michael Peevey issued an alternate proposed decision which recommends granting the city’s petition and orders project developer Southern California Edison (SCE) to construct an underground, single-circuit pathway in Segment 8A.

In his proposed decision, Peevey concluded that, “The burden imposed on Chino Hills and its residents by 3.5 miles of the aboveground transmission line, with towers approaching 200 feet tall, is unfair, is contrary to community values under Pub. Util. Code Sec. 1002 and warrants undergrounding.”

The alternate decision estimated the cost of undergrounding the portion of the project at $224m, which includes an offset of $17m for the city’s proposed contribution.

Predictably, officials with the city of Chino Hills expressed disappointment with Vieth’s decision and supported Peevey’s position, but acknowledged the jury is still out.

“We recognize that the CPUC commissioners will have the final say on undergrounding the transmission lines,” Mike Fleager, Chino Hills city manager, said in a statement. “It is our hope that the CPUC will review the full record and come to the realization that the undergrounding option (UG5) is the environmentally superior alternative through Chino Hills.”

Calls seeking comment from SCE were not returned by press time June 11.

The proposed decisions must be acted upon by the five-member commission, which can either adopt all or part of either decision as written, amend or modify the provisions of either decision, or set them aside and prepare its own decision. Under commission rules, commissioners can act on proposed decisions 30 days after publication, meaning that the proposed decision can be voted on as early as the commission’s July 11 public meeting at CPUC headquarters in San Francisco. Only when the commission acts are the recommendations binding on the parties involved.

The question of an underground versus aboveground alignment dates to 2007, when SCE initially proposed the project and the Chino Hills route for Segment 8A. The utility proposed using an existing 150-foot right of way (ROW) that had been designed for a 220-kV power line, but which had been inactive for “perhaps as long as 30 years,” a city spokesperson told TransmissionHub June 11. According to the ALJ’s proposed decision, the 220-kV line was “erected in the 1940s, before any houses were built along the ROW.” City officials pointed out to SCE that its own standards required a 100-foot circumference around the poles for a 500-kV line, the spokesperson said.

While Chino Hills nonetheless agreed to the aboveground alignment within the existing ROW, residents balked when the first 200-foot towers were constructed and appealed to the CPUC to halt further construction, claiming that the towers’ “visual, societal, and economic impact … has been far more significant than what the city or the commission envisioned.” In late 2011, the CPUC ordered work on the segment halted, and ordered SCE to prepare alternatives to the existing design and route.

Subsequently, SCE estimated an underground alignment would cost three to five times as much as the overhead alignment originally approved, ranging from $486m to $807m, compared to $172m for running the lines overhead. In addition, the utility repeatedly expressed doubts about whether the project could be completed by its anticipated in-service date of 2015 should Segment 8A be ordered to be placed underground.

Others also objected to the additional cost of undergrounding the 3.5-mile segment of line, which will be shared by ratepayers across California. The California Division of Ratepayer Advocates (DRA) estimated the cost of undergrounding the section of line $156m to $523m, or a cost of between $44.6m and $149.2m per mile for an underground alignment compared to $11.2m for each mile of overhead line approved for Segments 4 through 11 of the project, DRA stated in a brief it filed May 6.

While both the ALJ and Peevey considered testimony from the principals as well as others that had been granted party status prior to drafting the proposed rulings, the documents are subject to further comment.

According to the schedule contained in the modified assigned commissioner’s ruling issued in November 2012, comments on the proposed decisions will be due July 1 and reply comments due July 8. In addition, any interested party can submit comments by contacting the public advisor’s office at the CPUC by phone, e-mail or postal mail, or by appearing in person at the CPUC’s July meeting.

When completed, the 250-mile, $2.5bn, 500-kV project will be capable of moving up to 4,500 MW of renewable energy from wind and solar installations in the state’s renewable-rich Tehachapi area to the load pockets of the Los Angeles basin. The $2.5bn project has been called pivotal in helping the state meet its renewable portfolio mandate of obtaining 33% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

SCE has called the Tehachapi project “a critically important, high-voltage transmission line, the timely completion of which is essential for California’s progress toward its aggressive renewable energy goals.”

SCE is a subsidiary of Edison International (NYSE:EIX).