Intervenors support placing Tehachapi project above ground

At least four of the five intervenor parties to the matter of whether to underground a portion of the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project (TRTP) through the city of Chino Hills, Calif., support the proposed decision that would place the lines overhead and oppose the alternate proposed decision that would have 3.5 miles of the lines buried (Docket No. A07-06-031).

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has published comments filed by four intervenors, while the comments of a fifth party are still in process. The comments that were available to the public as of press time July 8 unanimously supported the proposed decision drafted by CPUC administrative law judge (ALJ) Jean Vieth, and opposed the alternate proposed decision written by CPUC President Michael Peevey.

The Utility Reform Network (TURN) cited several reasons it agreed with Vieth’s proposed decision, which concludes that Chino Hills’ request to place the lines underground should be denied.

“The [proposed decision] correctly finds that the cost to underground the transmission line through Chino Hills, approximately $268m to $296m, was prohibitive and that it would be unreasonable and against the public interest to underground Segment 8[A],” TURN said in its comments.

While Chino Hills agreed to the above ground alignment within the existing ROW, as approved in the CPUC’s original decision in December 2009, residents balked when the first 200-foot towers were constructed. They subsequently 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.”

TURN said Peevey’s alternate proposed decision incorrectly focused its review, in part, on the visual impact of the transmission towers and their effect on Chino Hills’ community values. TURN also said Peevey’s proposed decision ignores the fact that the TRTP runs closer to residences in cities surrounding Chino Hills.

“The [alternate proposed decision] errs in its review by relying on subjective evidence, ignoring factual evidence, and misapplying factual evidence,” TURN wrote. “These errors highlight the preferential treatment Chino Hills will receive if the commission votes for the [alternate proposed decision].”

Wind developer Terra-Gen Power, which identified itself as the largest producer of renewable power in California, also supported the ALJ’s proposed decision, and pointed out that the proposed decision and Peevey’s alternate agree that an above ground alignment, for which several towers have already been erected, could be completed in approximately four months.

“That timing means that if the [proposed decision] is approved, the TRTP could still be in operation in 2014, which would greatly reduce the risk of curtailment of the generation produced by the Tehachapi projects developed by Terra-Gen and other renewable generation companies,” the company said in its comments.

Other considerations also lead Terra-Gen to support the proposed decision, including its concern that the additional cost of undergrounding Segment 8A “will create an unnecessary economic burden for ratepayers that will incorrectly be attributed to renewable energy and could lead to ratepayer backlash against renewable energy.”

In addition, the company pointed to the consequences of the precedent that would be set by the approval of the underground option.  At best, the company said, such a precedent will add significantly to the time required to design, permit, and construct new transmission lines in California and will also greatly increase the cost of transmission infrastructure needed to maintain reliable electric service in the state.

Terra-Gen also expressed concern about negative effects on future investment if the line is ordered underground. The risk associated with a reversal of a major transmission development decision, unforeseen delays and the potential for increased costs to complete a transmission project would make lenders reluctant to invest in California, the company said.

The California Division of Ratepayer Advocates (DRA) also filed comments that favored the ALJ’s proposed decision over Peevey’s alternate proposed decision.

DRA stated that Peevey’s decision “relies on factors not in the record to support the conclusion that the project could be constructed underground for $224m.”

DRA said the alternate proposed decision changed project developer Southern California Edison’s (SCE) cost estimate of $372m by reducing or changing project cost elements in ways that were unreasonable and not consistent with the record.

The cost of building the 3.5-mile segment of line overhead through Chino Hills as originally approved is approximately $4m, according to the ALJ’s proposed decision.

DRA added that the alternate proposed decision contradicts the record in holding that community values constitute new material facts to support modification of the original decision approving construction of the line above ground.

“The [alternate proposed decision] claims that the overhead towers do not comport with community values consistent with Section 1002 of the Public Utilities Code, but the [decision] makes no attempt to explain … how the section suddenly proscribes a condition that currently exists in almost every county in California,” DRA said.

Section 1002, DRA pointed out, was not intended to determine the design for the line but the necessity for it, in part as a matter of public convenience.

The Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies (CEERT) also gave its support to the ALJ’s proposed decision, calling the alternate proposed decision “seriously flawed,” and asserting that only the proposed decision follows the law, policy and record applicable to the project.

“It is the responsibility of regulators to … avoid rendering a decision on an after-the-fact, piecemeal basis that is limited in its considerations, conflicts with [the] law, and results in discriminatory treatment between customers and those dependent on the transmission line, especially in terms of rate, cost responsibility, timing, and infrastructure adequacy,” CEERT said.

The original decision, which approved an above ground alignment as the environmentally superior alternative, was “the product of extensive transmission planning, rigorous environmental review, a full and complete evidentiary and legal record, sound policy, and broad opportunities for party input,” CEERT continued.

The group added that the additional cost of undergrounding the portion of Segment 8A through Chino Hills is prohibitive and should not be borne by ratepayers at large for the benefit of a few.

“While the TRTP will benefit a large number of ratepayers, the [alternate proposed decision] never demonstrates why all ratepayers … should be required to pay for something that only benefits a group of residents in one community,” CEERT said. “Allowing the undergrounding to go ahead and be paid for by ratepayers results in ‘gifting’ $1m to $1.3m of ratepayer dollars for each of the 220 houses that border the right-of-way.”

A fifth group, the Independent Energy Producers Association, also filed comments with the CPUC but its filing was not available to the public as of press time. A representative of the group on July 8 was unable to provide either the filing or an indication of the group’s position on the proposed decisions.

For its part, SCE has voiced its support for the ALJ’s proposed decision, while Chino Hills supports Peevey’s alternate proposed decision.

The matter is on the agenda for consideration at the commission’s July 11 public meeting at its headquarters in San Francisco. The five-member commission 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.

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).