As PUC Decision On Chino Hills Towers Nears, Hope Tempers Despair

(July 5) A decision that will have momentous impact on both the outward aesthetics as well as property values in the heart of upscale Chino Hills could be rendered as early as next Thursday when the California Public Utilities Commission meets in San Francisco.
On July 11, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) will take up the issue of whether a 3.5 mile-long span of the roughly five mile portion of the electrical transmission line for Southern California Edison’s Tehachapi renewable energy project that runs through Chino Hills will be placed underground or whether the cable capable of carrying 500 kilovolts of electricity will be strung from a series of 197-foot high towers, 18 of which have already been erected in the city.
The PUC, which in 2009 over the city of Chino Hills’ protest granted Southern California Edison clearance to erect high-tension power transmission towers through the 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, was persuaded in 2012 to reconsider that decision after city officials importuned PUC Chairman Michael Peevey to visit Chino Hills and witness firsthand the impact of the towers on the community.
The PUC ordered Southern California Edison, which had already expended millions of dollars in erecting the transmission towers within the Chino Hills city limits, to consider bringing the towers down and examine the  possibility of burying  the transmission lines  beneath the power corridor running through Chino Hills.
The 173-mile Tehachapi line is intended to connect 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.
After the California Public Utilities Commission gave Southern California Edison initial approval for the project and its means of conveyance, the Chino Hills City Council authorized what has to date resulted in the expenditure of $4.4 million 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.
The last ditch gambit by Chino Hills to appeal to Peevey in 2011 succeeded in bringing about in November of that year what would at least prove to be a temporary halt to the towers’ construction while a potential undergrounding alternative is explored
But that  halt also forced a delay in the overall project, known as the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, and state energy officials made clear that Chino Hills and other advocates of the undergrounding would need to utilize the respite in the construction to work with Edison to find a mechanism for defraying the increased cost the undergrounding would represent. With the deadline just days away, it appears the opportunity to forge a cost sharing alliance between the community and the utility has been squandered, significantly increasing the prospect that the PUC will allow Edison to proceed with the project as originally approved.
Southern California Edison has made clear all along that it would prefer to leave the power lines above ground. Nevertheless, it complied with the PUC’s request that it gather information, engineering and financial data, and testimony from involved and uninvolved but informed parties in order to arrive at a decision on whether undergrounding the cables is a viable alternative to leaving the line overhead through  Chino Hills. The decision that is likely to come next Thursday will come down to whether a majority of the members of the PUC board can be convinced that the burden the towers impose on the community of Chino Hills outweighs the complication, interruption, expense, and potential further delay that undergrounding effort will represent to Edison’s effort to complete the project.
While undergrounding advocates passionately maintained that burying the cables in the Chino Hills community was a superior option, they have risked the PUC’s rejection of their position by failing to prepare or outline a convincing cost-sharing plan toward that end which would have those directly benefited by the undergrounding bear a portion of its cost.
Undergrounding advocates have accused Southern California Edison of inflating the cost estimates for the undergrounding project. The undergrounding advocates have likewise been accused of underestimating the cost.
Last December, Edison submitted cost estimates for various undergrounding alternatives that ranged 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 $147 million. Southern California Edison, operating from a position of strength by virtue of its decades of experience in laying and stringing electrical lines, has cited its assessment of the technical and financial challenges associated with the project and the PUC has accepted those estimates as realistic ones.
Administrative Law Judge Jean Vieth, who was designated as the arbiter of still-remaining issues between the utility company and the city and its undergrounding advocates, concluded, “Using Chino Hills’ own summary of the major cost categories and the differences between the parties’ estimates, and evaluating the record developed on those cost items, we conclude that $147 million is not a credible estimate for the undergrounding. The actual cost, before offset for the reasonable value of Chino Hills’ real property contribution, which we have not determined, would approximate either $268 million or $296 million.
The city of Chino Hills made what PUC staff referred to as a “token” effort to share in the undergrounding cost, asserting it would participate by providing 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.
Vieth, however, was skeptical of Chino Hill’s claims as to the value of its offered contribution. Last month she tendered a proposed decision on the undergrounding petition which went against Chino Hills and in favor of allowing Edison to leave the line completely above ground. Vieth stated her “proposed decision does not assign a value to Chino Hills’ proposed real property offset but concludes that the actual value is a much more modest amount than Chino Hills’ estimate.”
Vieth further noted that Chino Hills substantially underestimated other costs associated with the discontinuation of the original plan not included in the undergrounding costs and appeared insensitive to those added cost implications.
“In qualitative terms, Chino Hills’ estimate does not include any allowance for three cost items, tower foundation removal, fiber optic cable in the conduit and geotechnical work, none of which it contends are necessary, and compared to Southern California Edison, it significantly minimizes five other cost items or groups of costs,” Vieth stated.
Vieth’s recommendation to the full PUC board is a non-binding one, but it nonetheless reflects the pointed issues at play in the eventual outcome.
One of the issues raised by Chino Hills which Vieth considered but ultimately rejected was the contention that Chino Hills was uniquely burdened by the Tehachapi line and as such the undergrounding alternative through the community merited approval.
“The affected section in Chino Hills is longer than elsewhere and, as a total, more residences border the utility right of way, but the housing density is greater in Duarte, Chino and Ontario,” Vieth stated. “Certainly the Chino Hills’ community, or at least part of it, has been more vocal in its opposition but this, alone, is not a basis for deciding the merits. It can be difficult to measure the views of a community at large. On the facts reviewed above, we could conclude that Chino Hills is not unique.”
By her language, Vieth suggested that the PUC’s granting of Chino Hill’s undergrounding request could touch off similar demands in dozens of other communities, delaying and adding expense to the project.   In her decision, Vieth cited the following passage from the brief offered by the PUC’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates as being concisely relevant to the question at issue: “By this rationale, every city the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project passed through has a reasonable basis for seeking modification and requesting that the line be placed underground as it passes through those cities as well.”
Vieth went on to state, “[My] proposed decision denies the city of Chino Hills’ petition for modification of the [PUC’s 2009] decision regarding [the Chino Hills] segment of the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project. The proposed decision finds that while underground construction of a single circuit, two cables per phase design is feasible and could be completed on a timely basis, the cost is prohibitive and should not be borne by ratepayers at large for the benefit of the city and its residents.”
Vieth offered a glimpse of the reasoning that went into her decision/recommendation to the PUC board, stating that the undergrounding’s cost benefit ratio was too lopsided. “On a per mile basis, these estimates represent a high approaching $85 million per mile and a low approaching $77 million per mile,” she stated. Along the 3.5 mile span, according to Vieth, 220 houses were directly impacted by the towers. The cost of sparing them from the visual blight of the towers would essentially exceed the cost of the homes themselves. “For each of the 220 houses that borders the right-of-way, the cost is on the order of $1.2-$1.3 million per house,” according to Vieth.
Vieth’s is not the final word on the matter.  On the same day Vieth’s decision was publicly released, the Public Utilities Commission also released an alternative proposed decision by PUC President Michael Peevey that stood in stark contrast to Vieth’s ruling. Peevey, who since visiting Chino Hills to personally survey the towers in the Fall of 2011 has expressed his empathy for Chino Hills and its residents, endorsed the call to place 3.5 miles of the single circuit line below ground level.
Peevey’s estimation of the undergrounding cost matched neither Chino Hill’s lower undergrounding cost projection nor Southern California Edison’s higher one. Peevey’s projection –  $224 million – came in at least $46 million below Edison’s estimate.
Peevey’s alternate proposed decision grants the city of Chino Hills’ petition and orders Southern California Edison to construct an underground, single circuit, cross-linked polyethylene system for roughly 70 percent of the distance the Tehachapi Line traverses Chino Hills. Peevey’s proposed decision concludes that “the burden imposed on Chino Hills and its residents by 3.5 miles of the aboveground transmission line, with towers approaching 200 feet tall, is unfair, is contrary to community values under Public Utility Code Section 1002 and warrants undergrounding.”
In the aftermath of Peevey’s November 2011 order to Edison to consider the undergrounding options, advocates of the undergrounding had been hopeful that change would extend to the entire five mile distance through Chino Hills. By February 2012, however, those hopes were dashed when the PUC acceded to Southern California Edison’s insistence that it could not prepare economical plans to underground that portion of the Tehachapi Renewable Energy Project power line through a 1.5 mile section of the city known as the Oak Tree Downs along the north side 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 at most, the line will be undergrounded for no more than 3.5 miles.
Bob Goodwin, the leader of the Chino Hills-based group Hope For The Hills which was instrumental in lobbying the PUC to revisit the undergrounding issue, said 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. 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.”
He accused Southern California Edison of “experimenting on a community of residents with no regard to the health and safety impact this will have on families.”
Despite Vieth’s ruling against undergrounding, Goodwin said he was heartened by her conclusion that underground construction is feasible and the project could be completed on time if the undergrounding takes place. He hailed Peevey’s finding, “which grants the city of Chino Hills’ petition and orders SCE to construct an underground system. We appreciate,” Goodwin emphasized, “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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