Undergrounding Power Line Cost Could Reach $1 Billion

A negotiated arrangement by which a 500 kilovolt power line Southern California Edison is routing through Chino Hills will be laid underground instead of being strung from 198-foot high towers could depend on how much taxpayer money city officials will be willing to commit to defray Edison’s cost in making that change, according to those involved in the negotiations.
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 had “overburdened” 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 and the suit was thrown out. Chino Hills appealed Davis’s ruling to the 4th District Court of Appeal, asserting the city had the right to have the case heard by a jury, but on September 12 the appeals court affirmed Davis’ decision, ruling 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 before a city appeal to the California Public Utility Commission (PUC) and Public Utility Commission Chairman Michael Peevey in particular succeeded in the imposition of a temporary halt in November to the towers’ construction while a potential alternative, such as undergrounding the lines or rerouting them through Chino Hills State Park, is explored.
According to Edison officials, any change to the approval of the overall project already given by the California Public Utilities Commission would boost considerably the already budgeted $166 million cost of that portion of the project through Chino Hills per the specifications adopted in 2009, entailing an added expense that would be prohibitive. A 96-page document Edison provided to the PUC in January discussed feasibility, cost and timing on 16 alternatives for having the power lines originating in Tehachapi traverse Chino Hills, including routing the lines through Chino Hills State Park at a cost of $424 million to $589 million,  trenching out a six-foot wide and six-foot deep, 3.5-mile long swath through town and undergrounding a single line at a cost of $300 million to $473 million, undergrounding a double-circuit line at a cost from $703 million to $1 billion, utilizing a different route through the city and/or state park, and utilizing the existing right-of-way in other ways, one of which entailed erecting  a larger number of shorter towers.
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.”
An anticipated sticking point in those negotiations is the cost the change will entail and who will bear that cost. Edison, which is complying with a state mandate in pursuing the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, will press for all of its add-on costs to be defrayed, either by increased rates to either its customers in general or those within Chino Hills as a special surcharge, or to have the city pay directly for the plan change, possibly through the issuance of municipal bonds to be financed by assessments placed on Chino Hills’ homeowners’ annual property tax bills.
City officials, citing the sensitivity and confidentiality of the negotiations with Edison, offered no official comment on what financial participation the city is prepared to agree to in ensuring the high voltage lines are placed beneath ground level and that the towers are taken down.
Chino Hills councilman Ed Graham in an exclusive interview with the Sentinel on May 6 expressed the belief that undergrounding the electrical lines will be less costly than is being represented by Southern California Edison.
“Our numbers are hundreds of millions lower than theirs,” Graham said. “As a public utility they are not allowed to go back for change orders, so their proposals are always super-inflated. If they don’t have to make those change orders, then as a public utility they keep all their money. The numbers they submit are always high. We, the city, hired transmission consultants who came up with numbers that are much lower. Depending on the size of the lines, it will cost $100 million to $600 million more than the cost of going above ground.”
The actual cost is up in the air, Graham indicated. “How much it will cost is dictated by the PUC,” Graham said. “They are the ones who will tell us what size of lines will go beneath the ground. Edison is arguing for a much bigger line than is needed for this project.”
Graham was reluctant to make any statement indicating the city would take on all or a portion of the financial responsibility for undergrounding the line.
“Who will pay?” he asked, rhetorically. “That is another issue that the PUC will decide.”
City taxpayers have to date paid enough, Graham said. “We have invested quite a bit of money into this project already,” he said, in reference to the city’s legal bills in opposing Edison. He suggested that the city’s taxpayers had already been soaked when they bankrolled the effort to force Edison to look into further options for transmitting the electricity through Chino Hills.  “The PUC does not do studies,” Graham said. “They require the utility companies to do the studies.  I would expect the PUC to determine how much Edison should pick up and how much the ratepayers should pick up.”
Ultimately, Graham said, the cost would be passed along to Edison’s electricity consumers. He said that the cost should and would be spread out among the entirety of Southern California Edison’s customer base rather than a surcharge limited to Chino Hills customers.
“I expect it to be everybody who pays,” he said. “This project is to serve all of the state, or at least all of SCE’s customers in the state, which I think is somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 million customers.”
Graham said that no matter the outcome of the negotiations, towers were likely to remain within a two-mile stretch within city limits.
“This agreement only deals with first 3.8 miles,” Graham said. “The last two miles will not be underground. Those two miles run through open space containing several large lot private parcels. Those currently aren’t proposed to be underground. The PUC made that decision because it is expensive and undergounding though the undulating hills would be astronomical even for this.”
Graham acknowledged that many of the owners of the property surrounding the two-mile stretch are well-heeled and would thus be in a position to further resist Edison. In this way, further delays in the project are possible.
Nevertheless, Graham said, he anticipates the project to underground the line and complete the project would move ahead “sooner than later.  SCE  has a desire to move along with the project They have been delayed a long time. For them it is time and money. We agree. We just want it underground. Single cable, double circuit, double cable, triple circuit and double cable, it doesn’t matter to me as long as they take down the towers and bury the cable,” he said.

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