Chino Hills Commits $76 M, Opposes Double Circuit In SCE Line PUC Testimony

CHINO HILLS – Chino Hills City Manager Mike Fleager last month told the California Public Utilities Commission that the city stands ready to make a financial commitment of as much as $76.7 million to mitigate Southern California Edison’s costs to ensure that a major portion of the transmission lines for the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project are placed underground.
Slightly over five miles of the 173-mile Tehachapi line, connecting what is planned as the world’s largest windfarm consisting of hundreds of electricity producing windmills in Kern County to the Los Angeles Metropolitan basin, will run through  Chino Hills. In 2009, the California Public Utilities Commission, over the city of Chino Hills’ protest, 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.
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.
In 2011, 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 18 of the towers within Chino Hills before a city appeal to the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and Public Utilities 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.
On February 28, the California Public Utilities Commission 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. No final decision on whether the electrical cables will be undergrounded was made, with that determination now scheduled for July. In the meantime, the commission is taking testimony and considering all order of submissions from Southern California Edison, the city of Chino Hills and other interested parties related to the undergrounding issue.
In November, Southern California Edison (SCE) filed a proposal by which it would be able to recover any money it put into exploring the undergrounding options. The commission’s February 28 directive to have SCE seriously consider the undergrounding options  contained a provision for Southern California Edison to recover its costs in proceeding with the planning for undergrounding 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.
Also on February 28, SCE provided the commission with a tentative contracting report relating to the undergrounding.
On March 20, Fleager, representing Chino Hills, provided testimony to the commission intended to inform its ultimate decision in July as to whether the line will be undergrounded through that 3.5 mile span within the city.
In his testimony, Fleager stated, “The towers, given their mammoth nature, both in height and girth, pervade all aspects of city life. The city and its residents were taken by surprise by the enormous size and impact of the towers. It is the city’s position that an underground transmission alternative is vastly preferable to the overhead project supported by SCE. Such an alternative should allow the project to go forward absent the harmful impacts to our community and to the residents.”
Fleager told the commission that if it determined that the lines should be buried underground, the commission “would ordinarily require SCE to pay the entire cost of the underground transmission line. Chino Hills opposes any attempt by SCE to assert that the city or its residents should be directly required to pay for the transmission line. That said, however, Chino Hills was directed [by the commission] as part of its testimony to “identify, clarify and quantify any financial commitment it is prepared to make to minimize the total additional cost of an underground option. In accordance with this directive, the city has prepared a package of financial commitments that the city is prepared to make to reduce the additional cost of an underground option. In total, the commitment is in the range of $70.45 million to $76.7 million. They include real property that is necessary for the construction of an underground transmission line which the city is prepared to convey to SCE in fee; future  revenue which the city would have derived which will now be available to SCE through ownership of such properties; increased expenses that the city will incur due to its loss of the use of the contributed properties; and costs associated with the landscaping and maintenance of those properties that are located in the right-of-way.  The city of Chino Hills is proposing to incur these costs, thereby reducing the ongoing cost to SCE and other ratepayers.”
Fleager said the land he referenced included 67.2 acres for right-of-way, 46.5 acres of which the city currently owns and the remainder of which it will need to purchase from private owners, as well as a 2.77-acre parcel that will be provided to SCE to host its Western Transition Station. Fleager said the revenue the city will lose would include leases of the property to Verizon and AT&T for cell phone towers.
At one point in his testimony, Fleager appeared to provoke at least a mild degree of consternation from the commission when he expressed opposition to SCE’s underground configuration that would entail two transmission cables.
After obtaining  Fleager’s acknowledgement that the undergrounding  project will entail for SCE  considerable expense and  for Chino Hills residents  “substantial disruptions of their daily lives… road closures, increases in noise levels… huge pieces of equipment being brought into and out of their neighborhoods… major amounts of dust and dirt kicked up into the air by the construction activity,” the commission inquired why the city was averse to laying into the right-of-way a double circuit line, thus doubling the electrical carrying capacity available to SCE, creating an economy of scale and obviating the future need to tear up the right-of-way and put in another line in the future.
“The underground proposal that the city is advancing calls for the replacement of an above ground double circuit transmission structure with a single circuit below ground line, correct?” the commission asked Fleager.
“Yes, it is my understanding that even SCE has stated that a double circuit transmission line is not needed at this time.,” Fleager responded.
The city manager’s response prompted a follow-up question.  “If at a future date it is determined that a double circuit is needed, then the city would once again be subject to significant disruption during the time period that the second circuit is installed. Would not the residents rather have the second circuit constructed now, rather than suffer yet another disruption to their daily lives in the future?” the commission asked.
Fleager responded “Absolutely not. The city and its residents have one goal – removal of the 200 foot transmission structures which SCE has constructed through the city. The city believes the single circuit underground transmission alternative represents the most cost-effective means of achieving this goal. In putting forward this solution, the city, however, recognizes that it may be necessary at some time in the future for SCE to install a second circuit. If that occurs, the community understands that once again there will be disruption to their lives resulting from the construction activity associated with the installation of the second circuit. The community believes that the temporary disruption this will cause is a small price to pay to ensure the removal of the overhead transmission structures.”
In elaborating on that point, Fleager dwelled at some length over the future inconvenience installing a second line will entail for Chino Hills residents and their willingness to endure it, but made no reference to the added cost such an undertaking would represent for SCE, totaling in the scores of millions of dollars.
“City officials, including myself,” Fleager said, “have had numerous conversations with residents and leaders of the community groups advocating removal of the towers, and we are confident in stating that the community as a whole is willing to put up with the inconvenience of underground construction activity for a relatively limited period of time in order to avoid permanent installation of the overhead transmission lines.”
Indications are that the undergrounding of the lines being considered will extend over a three-and-a-half mile span through Chino Hills and that the lines will remain above ground for the 1.5 miles they will must traverse through Oak Tree Downs.
In his testimony, Fleager indicated that city expenditures in seeking to prevent the towers from being erected went well beyond the $2.3 million in lawyers’ fees expended on lawsuits and administrative petitions. Fleager said the city has spent $3.4 million to “research, investigate and document alternative transmission routes and configurations.”
Other interested parties have a deadline of today to submit testimony. SCE is expected to submit rebuttal testimony on April 12, accompanied by the submittal of cross rebuttal testimony the same day. From April 22 to April 25, the commission will hold evidentiary hearings related to the Tehachapi line through Chino Hills at the State Office Building at 505 Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco.

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