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High Voltage

electricity pylons250Proposed power line revitalization irks South County residents

A draft environmental impact report is under way for a proposed power line project that initially was determined as not needing one. 

Neighbors worry the plan by Pacific Gas & Electric to replace its aging infrastructure between Watsonville and Aptos with more reliable power lines will mar the rural nature of the area and blight the view.

PG&E has proposed an additional circuit connecting the Green Valley Substation outside Watsonville to the Rob Roy Station. Doing so involves converting more than seven miles of single-circuit high voltage power line into a double-circuit by replacing existing wood transmission poles with new tubular steel poles. It also includes constructing a new 1.7-mile-long single circuit power line along Cox Road and Freedom Boulevard, including the installation of four new seek poles and the replacement of existing wood poles of about 39 feet with new ones that are 89 feet in height. From Green Valley Road to Cox Road, 100-foot steel poles will be installed, and a new 1.7-mile segment will be added down Cox, Day Valley and McDonald roads and Freedom Boulevard.

The existing 115-kilovolt system, the high voltage transmission system delivering power to consumers in the county, was constructed and put into service back in the 1970s. The system has barely been upgraded since then, with the last upgrade also completed in the 1970s with the addition of voltage support equipment at the Paul Sweet Substation.

Since then, demand in the area has increased substantially, with current peak winter demand having reached 175 megawatts. That’s nearly 60 percent higher than the peak demand recorded in 1970.  A renovation is required to help prevent large-scale outages particularly during winter months when demand is heaviest, according to officials with the utility company.

The company filed an application for a permit to construct the 115-kv power line, and The California Public Utilities Commission—which has exclusive jurisdiction over transmission lines owned by investor-owned utilities like PG&E—issued a Mitigated Negative Declaration without conducting an EIR. Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend questioned this decision.

“Based on the analysis in the initial study, it has been determined that all project-related environmental impacts could be reduced to a less-than-significant level with the incorporation of feasible mitigation measures,” determined Lisa Orsaba, project manager for CPUC’s Energy Division, in October. “Therefore, adoption of an MND will satisfy the requirements of CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act].”

In a letter to the county Board of Supervisors in December, Friend called upon his colleagues to urge the CPUC to conduct a full EIR.

“Over the past month, I have received numerous letters and phone calls from residents in the surrounding areas and attended multiple community meetings during which residents expressed their concerns about the size and placement of the project,” Friend wrote. “With proper consideration of the environmental impacts, I believe a balance can be reached between the need to improve the current infrastructure and the impacts on our county.”

He argues the project as it stands fails to fully take into account the agricultural and rural nature of the location, and that the Mitigated Negative Declaration doesn’t go far enough to understand or examine the potential environmental impacts the project could have on activities in the region.

“This is not merely maintenance—it is a huge development project encompassing more than seven miles of replacement wooden poles and the installation of four-foot concrete bases,” residents Rose Marie, Peter and Linda McNair wrote to the Board of Supervisors. “Our property and its organic status on Cox Road will be devastated by an urban invasion of concrete and steel, massive desecration of flora and fauna, and destruction of carefully tended gardens.”

The current power line serves about two-thirds of the county’s population, according to PG&E officials. The project would include replacing existing 40- to 60-foot wooden poles with metal poles as tall as 90 to 100 feet.

The board agreed with Friend, and the CPUC ultimately agreed to conduct a thorough environmental review. The scoping period—or period in which the state agency collected input from the community on what the review should include—just ended, according to Allyson Violante, an analyst with Friend’s office.

Those comments will be reviewed and a draft EIR will be completed, she says. That will likely take a few months, with an estimated completion of June 2014, though that’s subject to change. A 45-day comment period will follow completion of the draft before the final EIR is done.

“The things we heard from our constituents—a lot of people think it will dramatically change the view scape,” Violante says. “We also heard major concerns about the amount of trees that will be cut down.”

Another concern had to do with safety with regard to the placement of the poles, many of which will be located on very narrow roads, she says. Because of the narrow nature of those roads, the poles’ location could force pedestrians and cyclists into the right-of-way, creating traffic hazards. With regard to that concern, Violante says, the company has been open to working with county officials to mitigate those potential problems. The final determination of pole placement will definitely be an issue, she says. 

More information about the project is available online at http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/environment/info/panoramaenv/SantaCruz_115kVReinforcement/images/Santa_Cruz_ISMND.html

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