Pacific Swell

Southern California environment news and trends

PUC head and judge differ on putting Southern California Edison transmission lines underground in Chino Hills

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After a years-long fight over whether to place high-voltage transmission lines above ground or underground through a stretch of Chino Hills, California's Public Utilities Commission is set to decide in July between two competing proposals: an administrative law judge says putting the lines underground would be too expensive, while the PUC's own president says the cost would be "reasonable." 

The PUC approved Southern California Edison's  Techachapi Renewable Transmission Project  back in 2009; it's designed to bring wind energy from Kern County to the L.A. basin. But the project's been on hold for four years as Chino Hills city leaders and residents have complained that the right of way is too narrow, and that putting high-voltage transmission lines so close to residents could create unknown health impacts.

Of particular concern to residents is segment 8A of the project, a 3.5 mile section that weaves through the city of Chino Hills. City officials had appealed a 2009 ruling that rejected placing  the transmission lines underground. In her proposed decision issued late Tuesday, administrative law judge Jean Vieth agreed with the 2009 ruling, and found that while putting power lines underground through the city “is feasible and could be completed on a timely basis,” she argued that “the cost is prohibitive [she estimated the cost at between $268 million and $296 million] and should not be borne by ratepayers at large for the benefit of the City and its residents.”

But PUC President Michael Peevey  issued an alternate proposed decision Tuesday that calls for putting the lines underground in segment 8A, pleasing Chino Hills residents who have campaigned against the project for years. Peevey's proposal estimates the cost of putting the lines underground at $224 million. 

Bob Goodwin is with a group called Hope for the Hills, which has fought the project on a variety of fronts, and which supports the underground option for segment 8A.  “We have been very passionate, we have been very serious, and we have been dedicated to doing whatever we can to make sure it gets addressed the way it should have in the first place,” Goodwin said.

Goodwin had positive words for both rulings. While Vieth’s proposed decision went against Chino Hills, Goodwin points out that the judge said underground construction of power lines is feasible and could be completed on time: two points that Edison has disputed.

But Chino Hills residents including Goodwin are throwing support behind Peevey’s proposal. In it,  Peevey notes that the proposed transmission towers would be more than double the height of the ones in Chino Hills now, set in a narrow, 150-foot “right of way” among houses.

All five PUC commissioners toured Chino Hills after a prolonged public campaign by Hope for the Hills. Goodwin believes that getting public utilities officials to the city helped. “We’ve been very successful in putting a name, a face, a community to this project,” Goodwin says.

In a written statement, Edison says that the company "disagrees with the alternate decision and believes that the full commission should adopt the administrative law judge's proposed decision." Edison maintains that putting transmission lines underground in Chino Hills would "burden California energy users with additional costs that SCE estimates would range from $368 million to $722 million for an approximately 3.5 mile stretch of the 173-mile transmission line route" -- a much higher estimate than either Peevey's or Vieth's.

The PUC has until the end of July to consider which alternative to choose. The next commission meeting is July 11th. 

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