The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), in an order published on March 27, disposed of the Office of Ratepayer Advocates’ application for rehearing of a decision involving Southern California Edison’s (SCE) West of Devers Upgrade Project.
As noted in the order, which is dated March 23, the CPUC last August granted SCE a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) for the project, configured with the “tower relocation and Iowa Street 66 kilovolt undergrounding alternatives,” and subject to certain mitigation measures.
As noted in the CPUC’s August 2016 decision, the project would replace or upgrade the existing 220-kV transmission lines and associated facilities between Devers, El Casco, Vista, and San Bernardino substations in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, increasing the capacity of the West of Devers corridor from the present 1,600 MW to about 4,800 MW.
According to the project’s webpage, SCE received the record of decision from the Bureau of Land Management last December, and subject to all necessary environmental permits and regulatory approvals, construction is to begin in 3Q17. The project is expected to be operational and in service in August 2021, according to the site.
The CPUC’s August 2016 decision noted that the tower relocation alternative would place towers along a center line about 50 feet farther from the edge of the right of way (ROW) in particular residential segments of the project where potentially significant visual impacts have been identified. That alternative would reduce visual impacts by causing less incremental visual contrast, structure prominence, and view blockage from the residential locations, as well as reduce construction noise, emissions and traffic disturbance to nearby residents, the August decision noted.
The CPUC also said in that decision that the Iowa Street 66 kV underground alternative would underground a segment of the proposed 66-kV subtransmission line for about 1,600 feet, starting from 275 feet north of Iowa Street’s intersection with Orange Avenue and emerging on the south side of Barton Road. That alternative would eliminate the significant visual impacts associated with the project’s new overhead 66-kV subtransmission line along that corridor, the August decision noted.
According to the CPUC’s March order, the ORA, in its application for rehearing, alleged that in misconstruing and misapplying the term “feasible” as used under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the CPUC unlawfully rejected the “phase build alternative,” or PBA; there is no record basis to support a finding that the PBA is infeasible under CEQA; the record fails to support the CPUC’s finding of overriding considerations for building the project; and the record does not support the need or cost for the project.
As noted in the August 2016 decision, the PBA would remove the two sets of existing single-circuit towers and replace them with one set of new double-circuit towers in the location of the tower relocation alternative; retain the existing double-circuit towers (up to 110 interset towers would be required where the spans between retained towers exceed the strength of existing towers, and at locations where conductor blowout could occur); and install high-capacity conductors on all four circuits. That alternative would increase the capacity of the West of Devers corridor from the present 1,600 MW to about 3,000 MW.
The CPUC also said in its August 2016 decision that the PBA would reduce construction-related impacts by eliminating the need to remove and rebuild the existing double-circuit 220-kV structures, and would reduce visual impacts by incorporating the tower relocation alternative.
In its March order, the CPUC said that ORA’s rehearing application argued that the commission illegally approved the project rather than the PBA, which was identified in the environmental impact report (EIR) as the “environmentally superior alternative.”
The CPUC also said that the ORA argued that the commission’s finding that the PBA is infeasible misconstrues and misapplies “feasible” as used under the CEQA.
The CPUC said that the ORA’s argument lacks merit, noting that under the CEQA, an agency may not approve a proposed project if feasible alternatives exist that would substantially lessen its significant environmental effects.
The CPUC also said that the ORA’s assertion that the commission should not have found the PBA infeasible because the PBA accomplishes the same objectives as the project in a reasonable period of time is wrong.
The ORA’s argument, the CPUC said, overly narrows the commission’s discretion to find an alternative infeasible. While the EIR may have found the environmentally superior alternative potentially feasible, it does not mean that the commission does not have the discretion to reject that alternative, the CPUC said.
“As decision-makers, the commission is within its rights under CEQA to prefer the [project] for policy reasons, and it certainly is not required to approve the PBA as argued by ORA,” the CPUC said. “Rather, through the feasibility analysis, the commission may reject an alternate which it deems infeasible, as long as that finding is supported by record evidence.”
The CPUC said that it found that the project is preferable to the PBA because it is better able to satisfy the state and federal renewable energy goals, including Senate Bill 350, which requires the state renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to increase to 50% in 2030. The CPUC also noted, among other things, that it found that the project is superior from a policy perspective because of a much higher capacity at only a slightly higher cost.
On the issue of additional transfer capacity to meet renewable energy goals, the California ISO (Cal-ISO) testified that the PBA “can only meet the bare minimum deliverability need based on the 33% renewable generation portfolio provided by the commission for the [Cal-ISO] to study in its 2015-2016 transmission plan.”
The CPUC added that the Cal-ISO further noted that the PBA “may result in insufficient deliverability based on minor variations in study assumptions, such as transmission, loads, imports and generator addition or retirement.”
The CPUC said that SCE testified that the PBA “is not consistent with state energy policy goals because it would not facilitate as much renewable development [or] help meet state climate goals” and would “become a barrier to achieve the 50% RPS goal.”
The CPUC also said that the ORA’s assertion that the record does not support the finding that there were overriding considerations for building the project rather than the PBA, has no merit.
In this case, the CPUC said, the appropriate question is whether the project’s benefits outweigh potential environmental harm, and whether the record supports those benefits. The CPUC said that its decision found that the project allows SCE to comply with its generator interconnection requests; facilitates deliverability for renewable energy resources identified in the CPUC’s renewable portfolios in furtherance of California’s 33% RPS; and provides infrastructure that will potentially facilitate achievement of the state’s new 50% RPS.
The decision, the CPUC said, found that “these benefits outweigh the project’s unavoidable adverse environmental impacts on air quality, noise, visual resources and cultural resources.”
The CPUC also noted that the ORA contended that the record does not support the need and cost for the project. The CPUC said that its decision found that there is clear evidence of an increasing demand for renewable transmission in the areas surrounding the project, and that the project “is necessary to bring this renewable generation to the grid.”
As to project cost, the ORA noted that “the cost of the [project] has changed considerably from its initial estimate of $384 million,” but fails to identify any legal error or evidence that the adopted cost cap is unreasonable. The ORA also argued that the CPUC failed to weigh “whether the cost of the line is appropriately balanced against the certainty of the line’s contribution to economically rational RPS compliance.”
The CPUC added that the ORA’s arguments lack merit, and said that its decision found that economically rational RPS compliance does not turn on a project’s contribution to resource adequacy or reduced congestion costs. The decision also found that “the proposed project’s estimated cost of $310,000/MW compares favorably to the cost of other approved projects,” the CPUC said.
SCE is an Edison International (NYSE:EIX) company.