Environmental Cooperative Protests Chino Hills Undergrounding

The California Public Utilities Commission’s agreement to enter into negotiations with the city of Chino Hills and Southern California Edison for the undergrounding of power lines Edison intends to span across the city elicited a protest from a coalition of environmentalists and companies devoted to producing non-polluting renewable energy.
In its effort to meet state-mandated renewable energy goals, Southern California Edison has undertaken the $2.1 billion Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, which is intended to generate at least 1,500 megawatts of power from new windmills to be erected within a 50-square mile wind field in the Tehachapi area, an undertaking three times the size of any existing wind farm in the United States. In routing the lines carrying that energy southward from Kern County to the Los Angeles Basin, Edison sought, and in 2009 obtained from the California Public Utility Commission over Chino Hills city officials’ objections, permission to utilize the power line right-of-way through Chino Hills from Tonner Canyon to the Riverside County line. The city of Chino Hills sued Edison in 2010, claiming the company was on the verge of  “overburdening” the power line easements, but West Valley Superior Court Judge Keith D. Davis ruled the California Public Utilities Commission has exclusive jurisdiction regarding the route used by Edison. Chino Hills appealed Davis’s ruling to the 4th District Court of Appeal, but on September 12, 2011 the appeals court affirmed Davis’ finding that the California Public Utilities Commission and not the courts has exclusive jurisdiction over property rights issues between the city and Southern California Edison (SCE). That legal effort cost the city more than $2.3 million.
Beginning last year, Edison, which has long had a 150-foot wide right-of-way for its power lines that runs for 5.8 five miles through upscale Chino Hills, erected 12 of the towers within the city limits and another 5 in Carbon Canyon. In October, the city made a last ditch appeal to the California Public Utility Commission (PUC) and Public Utility Commission Chairman Michael Peevey in particular, and the commission in November moved to impose a temporary halt to the erection of more towers while a potential alternative, such as undergrounding the lines or rerouting them through Chino Hills State Park, is explored.
On May 3, the California Public Utilities Commission announced that confidential settlement negotiations between Southern California Edison and the city of Chino Hills on the routing of a 500-KV power line through the city were commencing. Those negotiations represent an effort by the commission, Edison and the city of Chino Hills to agree upon undergrounding the line beneath the existing right-of-way in the city. California Public Utility Commission President Michael Peevey said, “All of us at the CPUC are hopeful these negotiations, with the active involvement of our general counsel, will be successful and produce an outcome that satisfies the concerns of the citizens of Chino Hills, while fulfilling the transmission needs of SCE and its renewable energy suppliers.”
According to Edison officials, the cost of digging a six-foot wide, 3.8-mile long trench the entire length of the existing easement through town and burying a single 500 kV line will cost $300 million to $473 million and undergrounding a double-circuit line along the same span will cost from $703 million to $1 billion.
After the announcement that the confidential negotiations were ongoing, the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, known by the acronym CEERT, filed a motion with the Public Utilities Commission, calling the negotiations on an issue already settled “an abuse of discretion” and asking the commission to halt the negotiations.
According to CEERT, straightjacketing Southern California Edison into negotiations which presuppose the specific requirement that Edison underground the lines constitutes “a due process violation.”
Moreover, according to CEERT, the confidential nature of the negotiations, together with the commission’s failure to give proper legal notice of the negotiation process, improperly excluded a number of parties, including CEERT, which had previously gone on record as being opposed to the reopening of the approval process for the lines.
Under discussion in the negotiations, which are being carried out behind closed doors, is how the additional cost of undergrounding the lines will be defrayed and by whom. At stake in those negotiations will be whether the city of Chino Hills will issue municipal bonds to pay for the undergrounding, whether SCE will place a surcharge on Chino Hills electricity customers to pay for the undergrounding, or whether Edison will spread the cost among all of its 15 million customers through general rate increases. Any municipal bonds issued by the city to pay for the undergrounding would be debt serviced by increased property taxes on Chino Hills homeowners and businesses for 25 to 30 years.

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