Alaska co-op ordered to bury new 115-kV line

The Matanuska Electric Association (MEA) was ordered Aug. 13 by the city of Wasilla, Alaska’s planning commission to bury a new 115-kV transmission line that will be required to carry power from a new generation facility to the city some 43 miles northeast of Anchorage.

The planning commission voted 5-1 to have the line placed underground despite the $40m price tag for burying the high-voltage line, which is four times the co-op’s highest estimate for an aboveground alignment.

New transmission is needed to carry electricity from the utility’s Eklutna generating station that is being built on the northern end of the municipality of Anchorage to substations near the city of Palmer and in Wasilla. Construction of the plant is well underway with an anticipated in-service date of Jan. 1, 2015, according to MEA’s project website.

MEA plans to build the new transmission in two phases. The first phase is a new 20-mile, double-circuit transmission line from the switchyard adjacent to the generation station to MEA’s Hospital substation near the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in Palmer. That line would be built to 230-kV standards but would initially be operated at 115-kV.

The second phase includes the transmission line that is the subject of the controversy. The second line will connect the Hospital substation to either the Herning or Cottle substation in Wasilla. The utility’s analysis indicated that the “least cost” option was upgrading an existing line on an existing right-of-way (ROW) along the George Parks Highway, which runs through the middle of Wasilla. That option carried an estimated cost of $3.8m and would have necessitated replacing the existing 45-foot towers with towers of 80 to 100 feet in height to accommodate the higher voltage.

MEA evaluated four options in addition to its preferred route, which ranged from 6.4 miles to 12.9 miles in length, and with estimated price tags ranging as high as $9m.

Ultimately, city leaders objected to the taller towers that would have been required, citing their detrimental effect to the “viewshed” along the Parks Highway, which includes views of Pioneer Peak and the adjacent Chugach mountains.

The new transmission line will accommodate Wasilla’s growth and build redundancy into the grid, according to MEA’s project website. To pay the significantly higher cost, the utility notified the Regulatory Commission of Alaska on Aug. 14 that it planned by the end of September to file a tariff case that would establish a citywide surcharge area in Wasilla, citing the cost-causation principle.

“The commission would have 45 days from the filing to make a decision of whether to approve or disapprove the tariff filing,” which includes a 30-day public comment period, a Regulatory Commission spokesperson told TransmissionHub Aug. 15.

In addition to Wasilla and Palmer, MEA serves customers in and around Eagle River, so a citywide surcharge within Wasilla’s boundaries would prevent its other ratepayers from paying for Wasilla’s decision.

Despite the higher cost, the move will only hide the power lines along the portion of the route that falls within the Wasilla city limits. The rest of the proposed route falls outside city limits on property governed by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which does not have permitting authority and therefore no input as to whether the line will be buried or sited overhead.