by Ceal Smith

The visual and environmental impact of high transmission towers, like the one shown here, are one of the concerns raised about the proposed power expansion.

The visual and environmental impact of high transmission towers, like the one shown here, are one of the concerns raised about the proposed power expansion.

A proposed new high voltage transmission line between Walsenburg and the San Luis Valley is drawing fire from both sides of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Communities and property owners all along the proposed 95-mile long transmission corridor are responding. The La Veta group POSSEE, San Luis Land Rights Council and Morgan family are concerned that the 150’ towering lines will threaten wildlife, public health, and rural sense of place values.
TriState and Xcel Energy have partnered to promote construction o

f the new double-circuit 230 kV line at their estimated cost to ratepayers of $180 million  (http://www.socotransmission.com/).  Since June, the Colorado Public Utility Commission (PUC) has gathered expert and public input to examine the need for the project. Numerous stakeholders and citizens have filed comments and testimony that can be viewed at: http://www.dora.state.co.us/puc/DocketsDecisions/HighprofileDockets/09A-325E.htm.
Currently, a 230 kV, 115 kV, and smaller 69 kV line carry electricity into the SLV from the Poncha Substation.  The TriState Corridors Study concludes that the SLV is vulnerable to voltage collapse, should either of the larger lines go down.
Over 80% of the Valley’s electricity use is for irrigation agriculture.  Voltage collapse and reliability are vital concerns to the Valley’s growers. At the PUC hearing in Alamosa in November, Rio Grande Water Conservation District Manager Steve Vandiver emphasized that it is “imperative” to have reliability of service to support the SLV’s 600,000-acre agricultural industry.  SLV Water Conservancy District Manager Mike Gibson echoed Vandiver’s concern, as did Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache County Commissioners, who all spoke in favor of the new transmission line (http://www.alamosanews.com/v2_news_articles.php?heading=0&story_id=14829&page=72).
TriState’s Corridor Study concludes that, “a new line from a second source would provide redundancy [and] improve dependability and reliability of service.”  The combined 640 kV capacity line—more than four times the Valley’s projected 155 MW electricity need to 2015—is their proposed solution.

The need for costly new transmission infrastructure is currently subject to much debate among energy analysts.  A California law journal recently reported that despite enormous costs and inefficiencies, current rules “guarantee that utilities can charge ratepayers enough to recover costs, plus a 12 percent return on their investment”.  “The incentives are all wrong”, says CA energy expert Bill Powers.  “It’s a terrible way to make energy policy.” (http://www.callawyer.com/story.cfm?eid=905180&evid=1)

Long time resident and member of the ad hoc citizens SLV Solar Working Group, Claire Barker, agrees that energy security is vital but doesn’t believe the line supports a sustainable future. “This will not give us energy independence”, says Barker, “it will just increase our costs and the vulnerability that we’ve always had.”  She explained, “What we need is an energy system that makes sense economically and builds redundancy and reliability locally.”

The TriState Transmission Corridor Study Area (you can download a detailed map at http://engage.edaw.com/socotransmission/map) contains two areas identified by the Colorado Conservation Partnership as critical to the conservation future of Colorado (see: http://www.keepitcolorado.org/).  The Rio Grande River Corridor extends from Monte Vista, through Alamosa and south.  The Sangre de Cristo landscape overlaps with the entire western half of the CSA. According to Colorado Open Lands, who holds 20 conservation easements in the CSA, the area is “steeped in history” and “encompasses some of the most spectacular views and abundant critical wildlife habitat” in the Country.   COL is in “productive discussions” with Trinchera Ranch owner, Louis Bacon to place an easement on the Blanca portion of the Ranch.
Perhaps the project’s most formidable opponent is Bacon, who purchased the 170,000-acre Blanca-Trinchera Ranch in 2007.  Bacon hired utility attorney James Dauphinais to represent Trinchera in the formal PUC proceedings.   In a 45-page testimony, Dauphinais questioned the need for the project and TriState’s failure to examine less costly alternatives. Dauphinais alleged that TriState ignored “the potential to resolve the voltage collapse-related reliability issue [with the] addition of at least 150 MW of thermal solar generation with storage in the SLV.”   Furthermore, he concluded, “the addition of a new 230 kV transmission line from SLV to the north” could be built for far less.
When questioned by the PUC, Department of Energy transmission expert Tom Darin confirmed that, “local demand-side resources and distributed renewable generation in the SLV could eliminate the need for the transmission line.”
TriState and Xcel have given little attention to the state’s mandate to “encourage local ownership of renewable energy generation facilities to improve the financial stability of rural communities.”
Saguache County Commissioner and rancher Mike Spearman, who supports the new line, commented in an interview that, “the County has taken the lead on a 100 MW solar facility that would be jointly owned through a SLV Rural Electric Authority.”  The SLV Development Resources Group received funding for a feasibility study, but the “process has bogged down,” says Spearman, “we are losing our window of opportunity.”
The Rural Utility Service has ordered a full Environmental Impact Statement that will require analysis of a range of project alternatives.  At a recent GEO meeting, TriState Public Affairs Manager Brad Jones reported that, “a proposed route has not yet been identified.” Route refinement with additional public review is scheduled for  “early 2010,” the draft EIS “ in late 2010 or early 2011” and a “final decision in late 2011,” Jones said.  If approved, the new line is expected to go into operation in 2013.
The PUC is accepting public input through Dec. 11. Mail written comments to: PUC, 1560 Broadway, Suite 250, Denver, Colo. 80202, or email to: http://www.dora.state.co.us/puc/pucemaildisclaim.htm, reference Docket No. 09A-324E.