PUC Tells SCE To Make Plans To Bury 70 Percent Of Chino Hills Power Lines

The California Public Utilities Commission on February 28 directed Southern California Edison to proceed with its plans to bury its transmission lines for the Tehachapi Renewable Energy Project along a 3.5 mile portion of the five mile length the lines will run through Chino Hills.
The commission gave that direction, despite the consideration that a final decision on whether the electrical cables will be undergrounded will not come until July.
Chino Hills residents who have long been opposed to the already-approved but on-hold means of conveying that electricity through the city, namely via 197-foot high towers from which the transmission lines are to be strung, hailed the commission’s directive as a major victory in their effort to achieve an alternative to the towers.
The commission’s directive contained a provision for Southern California Edison to recover its costs in proceeding with the planning for undergrouning the cables in the event the commission this summer elects to remain with the already approved game plan of utilizing an above-ground conveyance of the electricity.
Over the city of Chino Hills’ protest, in 2009 the board of the California Public Utilities Commission granted Southern California Edison clearance to erect a series of 197-foot high power transmission towers through the heart of 44.7-square mile Chino Hills along a long-existing power corridor easement owned by the utility. That approval came as part of the commission’s endorsement of Southern California Edison’s Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, to consist of what will be the world’s largest windmill-driven electrical generating field near Tehachapi in Kern County together with the lines to convey that power to the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. The $2.1 billion project is part of Southern California Edison’s effort to meet state-mandated renewable energy goals.
Fearing a host of problems from the imposition of the towers, including significant negative impacts on property values in the city, the Chino Hills City Council authorized the expenditure of over $2.3 million to employ attorneys and make other efforts to contest the Public Utility Commission’s action, including a suit against Southern California Edison alleging the company had “overburdened” the power line easements. That legal effort failed when 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 in September 2011 the appeals court affirmed Davis’ decision.
Beginning last year, Edison, which has long had a 150-foot wide right-of-way for its power lines that runs for 5.8 miles from Tonner Canyon to the Riverside County line,  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 a temporary halt to the towers’ construction being granted in November 2011 while a potential undergrounding alternative is explored.
With its order last week, the California Public Utilities Commission gave Edison assurance it can accelerate the pre-construction activity it is undertaking aimed at actually burying the transmission lines through roughly 70 percent of Chino Hills without financial risk. The commission signaled that Edison can begin engineering efforts in earnest and make land purchases to facilitate the completion of the project by a December 2015 project completion target date.
In the document co-authored by Peevey approved by the full commission on February 28, it is stated, “SCE [Southern California Edison] should be directed to submit a proposal that clearly defines the ‘reasonable assurance’ it requires that the commission will support rate recovery of the costs incurred for undergrounding the Tehachapi Project through Chino Hills should the commission later decide to reject the undergrounding modification. The rate recovery proposal that SCE has filed expressly recognizes that jurisdictional authority to set the Tehachapi Project’s transmission rates lies with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  SCE states that it ‘expects that all costs associated with the project will be recovered at [FERC] … through existing rate recovery mechanisms on file’ there. However, while FERC holds the authority to determine the prudency of costs expended by a utility, SCE argues that under the unique circumstances of a situation like this one, a state commission’s assessment is particularly likely to inform FERC’s determination.  Accordingly, though SCE is not an undergrounding proponent, SCE’s rate recovery proposal seeks a finding from this commission that it would be in the public interest for SCE to undertake certain activities now – essentially to accelerate them – in advance of our decision on the merits of undergrounding Segment 8A.” Segment 8A refers to that section of the line through Chino Hills.
The commission complied with Edison’s request to be able to charge its ratepayers up to $33 million to recover its costs if the commission decides in July against burying the cables through Chino Hills.
A subdivision of the California Utilities Commission, its Division of Ratepayer Advocates, Peevey said, “disagrees that accelerating pre-construction activities is reasonable or necessary, and therefore contends that doing so cannot be in the public interest.  In the Division of Ratepayer Advocates’ view, ratepayers should bear no additional cost responsibility prior to a commission determination on whether or not to underground Segment 8A.  Moreover, the Division of Ratepayers Advocates argues that any costs SCE has incurred in responding to the Chino Hills’ petition for modification must be recovered under the cost cap for the project.”
Ultimately, Peevey and his colleagues on the commission overruled the Division of Ratepayer Advocates’ objections.
“The Division of Ratepayer Advocates, like SCE and other parties, is correct that authorization of accelerated pre-construction activities requires a public interest finding.  We recognize, as the parties do, that direction to a utility to engage in pre-construction activities is unusual – we would much prefer to wait until we are in the position to issue a decision on whether or not to underground Segment 8A following full development of the record.  But in this unique situation, if we wait, we certainly will delay commercial operation of the Tehachapi Project.  That clearly is not in the public interest,” Peevey wrote.
Bob Goodwin, president of Hope For The Hills, an organization militating against the above-ground power lines in Chino Hills, told the Sentinel, “The Public Utility Commission’s vote is the first step in the process, but it is a big step since it sets us on the path to our ultimate goal of saving our families, homes and community. We are beyond ecstatic over this vote.”
It is clear from SCE’s filings that the undergrounding will only run below a 3.5 mile portion of Chino Hills and that Southern California Edison intends to utilize the towers to extend the line through the 1.5 mile span of the city known as Oak Tree Downs.
Goodwin said that Hope For The Hills had not entirely resigned itself to the inevitability of the towers remaining along that mile-and-a-half-long corridor. Still, he said, the likelihood is that the towers will become a permanent part of that landscape.
“While the recent information regarding The Oak Tree Downs section of the project is not positive, we want to emphasize this information has been known to all concerned since early 2012,” Goodwin said. “Hope For The Hills learned, at that time, that SCE had always maintained undergrounding would not be feasible in that area. We continue to support Oak Tree Downs and options are being researched.”
On February 28, Leslie Starck, Southern California Edison’s senior vice president for regulatory affairs, notified the commission that the utility  had revised the cost of undergrounding the transmission line through Chino Hills upward. At the very least, Starck indicated the undergrounding project along the 3.5 mile stretch would cost $700 million and it could range as high as $893 million.
Goodwin was somewhat skeptical of that estimate.
“As for the higher costs – never be surprised that costs go up when SCE is building something,” Goodwin said. “First, they have done a lot of things to get the costs higher – one being adding the 35% contingency fee to the numbers that the bidders provided them. Bidders already build a contingency into their numbers. So these numbers reflect a contingency on a contingency.”

Leave a Reply