Tehachapi Line Undegrounding Decision In Chino Hills Due On July 11

(May 24) As the July 11 deadline for the California Public Utilities Commission’s decision on whether the electrical transmission line for Southern California Edison’s Tehachapi project will be placed underground through a substantial portion of Chino Hills, some problematic issues remain for those advocates of having 18 of the 197-foot high electric transmission towers that have already been erected permanently removed.
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 with 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 the upscale, 44.7-square mile city at the extreme southwest corner of San Bernardino County 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 millions of dollars to employ attorneys and make other efforts to contest the Public Utility Commission’s action, including filing 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 obtaining a temporary halt to the towers’ construction in November 2011 while a potential undergrounding alternative is explored.
On February 28 of this year, the California Public Utilities Commission directed Southern California Edison to tentatively proceed with planning toward burying  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.
Per the PUC’s instructions, Southern California Edison, which would yet prefer to leave the power lines above ground, is proceeding with planning to underground the cables, even as the PUC is gathering information, engineering and financial data, and testimony from involved and uninvolved but informed parties in order to arrive at a decision on whether to leave the line overhead through  Chino Hills or have Edison bring the towers down and place the cable underground for a three-and-one-half mile stretch within the city.
What it comes down to is whether a majority of the members of the PUC board can be convinced that the untoward elements of the imposition of the towers on the community of Chino Hills outweighs the complication, interruption, expense, and further delay that undergrounding effort will represent to Edison’s effort to complete the project.
In their headlong rush to convince the PUC to force Southern California Edison to underground the line through Chino Hills, activists and city officials have risked the PUC’s rejection of their position by overlooking, downplaying or ignoring entirely critical issues that the PUC must resolve in making its decision.
One of those issues is the expense of the undergrounding remedy and who will be called upon to bear it.
While Southern California Edison has been accused of inflating the cost estimates for the undergrounding project, undergrounding advocates have likewise been accused of underestimating the cost.
Last December, Edison submitted cost estimates for various undergrounding alternatives ranging from $486 million to $807 million. Edison previously maintained the cost of trenching out a six-foot wide and six-foot deep, 3.5-mile long swath through town and undergrounding a single line would be $300 million to $473 million, and undergrounding a double-circuit line to be $703 million to $1 billion. Edison claims it could erect the towers along the same span and string the cables between them for an estimated $172 million.
Some of those calling for the burial of the lines maintain the job could be done competently for as little as $200 million. The wide discrepancy here is one that is fraught with hazard for the undergrounding advocates. Even if Southern California Edison is  highballing its cost estimates associated with the burying of the electrical cable, the utility company operates from a position of strength in doing so by being able to rely upon decades of experience in laying and stringing electrical lines, including recent projects that give a realistic assessment of the technical and financial challenges associated with similar jobs. Opponents of the towers lack the expertise and credible authority with the PUC to contradict Edison in this regard.
Moreover, undergrounding advocates take it as an article of faith that Edison’s added cost of undergrounding the lines instead of stringing them from the above-ground towers will be defrayed across the spectrum of the roughly 12 million customers Edison serves. Not everyone feels that to be an entirely equitable or justifiable arrangement.
Christopher Chow, a spokesperson for the California’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates, which has its office in the PUC’s San Francisco office, summarized the difference of opinion by saying, “The people in Chino Hills want those lines buried rather than having those very high towers, which may impact their property values. They think Edison should bear the cost for having ignored them when the application was made. Then there are other ratepayers in the state who see that as Chino Hills’ problem and they do not want to pay for their problem.”
If Edison customers in Chino Hills, both commercial and residential, were to be called upon to defray the cost of the undergrounding project, one projection is that individual households, i.e., residential customers, would see a rate boost or excise fee add-on of around $900 per year. By passing the undergrounding  cost on to consumers statewide, individual ratepayers would see a yearly impact on their electricity bills of under $5, according to Bob Goodwin, the leader of the Chino Hills-based grassroots group Hope For The Hills that is the foremost advocate of the undergrounding option.
Southern California Edison’s Local Public Affairs division has argued that “It is improper that 12 million people should have to pay more than $700 million to benefit what is only a few hundred households in Chino Hills.”
In the event that the PUC board expresses interest in how much of the cost burden the Chino Hills community is willing to bear to make the undergrounding a reality, advocates for the undergrounding will be unable to provide any quantified answer. With the more vocal of Chino Hills residents protesting the presence of the towers insisting that the cost sharing for the undergrounding should be done among all of Southern California Edison’s ratepayers rather than simply those living within the confines of Chino Hills, city officials have taken no steps whatsoever toward creating or even exploring creating a local funding mechanism such as a tax or assessment arrangement that would cover the cost of the undergrounding effort.
The city has, however, indicated it is prepared to commit as much as $76.7 million to mitigate Southern California Edison’s undergrounding costs, including providing 69.97 acres of real property needed for the construction of the 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.
Since 2009, the city has expended roughly $4.4 million in legal and administrative costs in fighting the towers.
“The people of Chino Hills have already paid enough,” said Chino Hills City Councilman Ed Graham.
Complicating the issue for Chino Hills and undergrounding advocates is skepticism members of the Public Utilities Commission Board have toward the grounds upon which  Chino Hills officials’ have questioned, contradicted  or second guessed Edison with regard to technical issues relating to the undergrounding effort. Pronouncements by the city and its representatives in several instances lie outside their respective areas of expertise, putting Southern California Edison in a superior position in making its case with PUC staff, which is extremely sensitive to technical issues involving utilities.
One example of this is Edison’s stated intention of proceeding with an undergrounding configuration that would entail two transmission cables. In his testimony before the PUC on March 20, Chino Hills City Manager Mike Fleager said he and the city were opposed to the double circuit line. “It is my understanding that even SCE has stated that a double circuit transmission line is not needed at this time,” Fleager testified. Fleager’s statement was flatly denied by SCE’s representatives. When the commission inquired why the city was averse to Edison laying into the right-of-way a double circuit line, thus doubling the electrical carrying capacity of the system and creating an economy of scale while obviating the future need to tear up the right-of-way and put in another line in the future, Fleager provided an answer that left the commissioners with the impression that Chino Hills and its residents had no regard for the overarching objective of making renewable energy available to a significant number of residential, commercial and industrial customers in Southern California at a competitive price. Commissioners have since expressed concern that Chino Hills officials and Edison’s critics in Chino Hills in general have little appreciation or regard for the added cost the undergrounding effort would represent for SCE, totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and are more concerned with matters of convenience relating to the Chino Hills population than the state’s energy efficiency goals.
“The city and its residents have one goal – removal of the 200 foot transmission structures which SCE has constructed through the city,” Fleager stated in his testimony. “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.”
Another example of what at least some commissioners believe to be the city’s short-sighted focus on achieving its objective while showing little or no regard for the technical issues Edison must deal with is the city’s opposition to the expansion of the  Mira Loma Substation to accommodate circuit regulating equipment for the undergrounding. The substation is located in the extreme southern end of Ontario, across the city limits from Chino. The city of Ontario lodged a protest against that facility expansion, based on aesthetic considerations together with concern that it would inhibit future residential growth in the area.  The city of Chino Hills joined in with Ontario in protesting the Mira Loma Substation expansion.
That opposition to the Mira Loma Substation expansion has confounded PUC technical analysts, the Sentinel has learned, as the expansion of the substation will be critical to the undergrounding of the electrical lines the city is requesting.
To accommodate the undergrounding, electricians say, two transition stations will be needed at both ends of the undergrounded line. These transition stations, involving “compensators and convertors” will involve at least two acres of ground. The transitional staging is required because above ground lines, which can allow the offloading or diffusion of heat through the wire into the air to take place, embody different physical and electrical characteristics than  underground cables which carry significantly more charging current and heat. Electrical engineers will thus use massive transformers featuring a multitude of coils above ground to counteract the charging current of the undergrounded cable after and before it is connected to the overhead cables at the succeeding stages of the Tehachapi line.
PUC officials are troubled by what they see as Chino Hills’ officials willingness to sign on to what is perceived as an “obstructionist” strategy toward a key component of Edison’s undergrounding plan merely for political expedience, that is, maintaining cordial relations with the city of Ontario.
Simultaneously, Edison has lobbied and in some cases succeeded in having other entities back it in its requests to proceed with the Tehachapi line as it was originally approved, thus avoiding added expense and decreasing the rates that will be charged its customers in the future.
Among the entities that have offered Southern California Edison support in its call for the PUC to allow the utility to complete the Tehachapi line without having to underground electrical cables through Chino Hills and thus hold down electrical rates are the California Ratepayers Association,  the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the Apple Valley, Fullerton and Phelan chambers of commerce, the Milk Producers Council and Inland Action, an  entity devoted to promoting economic prosperity in the Inland Empire.
The effort to promote the undergrounding of the lines the entire five miles distance through Chino Hills has already been undercut, with the PUC having quietly acceded last year to Southern California Edison’s insistence that it could not prepare economic plans to underground that portion of the Tehachapi Renewable Energy Project power line  through the Oak Tree Downs area of Carbon Canyon at the  west extension of Chino Hills, given the undulations of the area’s rolling hills and other peculiarities in the contour of the land. The upshot is that the undergrounding program now being considered applies to a three-and-half mile span across the city.
Goodwin said that Hope For The Hills and the Chino Hills community in general “looks forward to a decision by CPUC favoring public safety in Chino Hills on July 11. This has been an epic battle of a growing group of passionate citizens trying to undo bad management decisions at corporate giant SCE to construct a dangerous infrastructure project through a densely populated neighborhood.
“The international standard for high voltage transmission towers and lines is to keep 400kV lines at least 400 feet from homes, schools, and parks,” Goodwin said. “The Chino Hills portion of the Edison Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project  is even bigger, 25% more powerful at 500kV and they are placing it within 75 feet of hundreds of existing homes, schools, churches, and parks. This would become the largest high voltage transmission project in the world that is located this close to a densely populated area.”
Goodwin said, “Chino Hills does not want to be an afterthought years from now when health issues arise, and they will, with the prolonged exposure to the electromagnetic frequency radiation these lines will emit. Additionally, with this project being the first like it in the U.S., the construction is not proven. Given that, does SCE think it is safe to ‘experiment’ on a community of residents with no regard to the impact this will have on families?
“We appreciate,” Goodwin said, “the courage demonstrated by the CPUC commissioners as they were personally appalled at the sight of seeing the arrogant towers with their own eyes.  It’s obvious they immediately recognized SCE’s reckless disregard for others.”

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