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    Riverside punts to state regulators for decision on whether to bury power lines
    • October 25, 2023

    State regulators will decide whether transmission lines for a long-awaited Riverside power project will be buried underground or tower up to 180 feet above a picturesque stretch of the Santa Ana River.

    After hearing arguments on both sides from more than two dozen residents, a split Riverside City Council voted late Tuesday, Oct. 24, to leave a decision on the controversial, $521 million project up to the California Public Utility Commission.

    Given the need to dramatically increase electrical infrastructure in coming years to meet California’s clean energy goals, Larry Chung with Southern California Edison said “all eyes are on Riverside right now” to see which direction this decision goes.

    If commissioners make Edison bury those power lines, as Norco has asked them to, Riverside could continue to pursue federal funds in hopes of preventing additional costs to ratepayers. While that option is pricier and will take longer, it’s popular with many residents who believe it reduces wildfire risks while improving aesthetics and property values.

    “Delighted” is how Norco Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Bash, who’s been leading his city’s efforts to underground the project, described his reaction to Riverside’s vote. After meetings last week with representatives for three of the five state utility commissioners, Bash said, “I am hopeful very hopeful that the CPUC will hear it our way.”

    But if commissioners reject or ignore Norco’s petition, that clears the way for Edison to continue with approved plans to string high-voltage transmission lines above ground, between new steel poles and towers that would zigzag for 5.3 miles along the bank of the Santa Ana River. That would allow the city and utility to move forward with plans that have been in the works for nearly two decades to boost energy reliability and capacity for Riverside, which is popular with business and trade groups.

    For now, Chung said the project is on hold, as Edison waits for either a more definitive vote of support from Riverside for continuing with an above-ground project or a final decision from the state. And he said other jurisdictions are watching for signals about the future of transmission projects in California.

    How we got here

    Riverside is the only city of its size in California that has just one connection to the regional electric grid.

    City leaders say that leaves residents vulnerable to outages and could one day limit both the city’s growth and its transition to electric transportation and buildings. So Edison and Riverside have spent nearly two decades developing plans for a second connection, called the Riverside Transmission Reliability Project, which would tie into the grid near the 15 freeway in Jurupa Valley and carry power to Riverside along 9.3 miles of high-voltage wires that would cut a corner of Norco.

    Jurupa Valley filed a lawsuit over the project in 2016 that said overhead lines would hurt property values and residents’ views. So when the CPUC voted to approve the project, in March 2020, it included plans to bury the four miles of power lines that run through Jurupa Valley’s borders, while the remaining 5.3 miles are approved to be above ground.

    Riverside officials said there was a delay in moving the project forward for two years due to COVID-19. When it came back up for discussion in late spring of 2022, Councilmember Steve Hemenway led the discussion about concerns over how the project might increase fire risk in the area, hurt aesthetics and impact quality of life for residents. So the council in May 2022 gave Hemenway six months and a budget of $50,000 to have a consultant work with city staff to come up with a plan for moving the entire project underground.

    The council considered that plan during a November 2022 meeting but voted 4-3 against moving forward, with members Jim Perry, Gaby Plascencia, Erin Edwards and Chuck Conder citing concerns about further delays and rising costs.

    Then, in January, the council voted 6-1 to let Hemenway and Conder — who by then had changed his opinion — form a working group to try to find funds to cover the added cost of undergrounding lines. Edison has declined to estimate how much the project’s price tag would go up if the remaining 5.3 miles were moved underground, though costs to underground the Jurupa Valley portion of the project suggest burying the entire project would add an estimated $150 million, bringing the total cost to roughly $671 million.

    The working group included Norco council members and staff along with representatives from a bipartisan group of state and federal elected officials’ offices. They met eleven times over the past eight months, with a final report due back to the council Tuesday, Oct. 24.

    In that report, Hemenway and Conder said there’s a potential to secure a share of the hundreds of billions of dollars set aside for energy projects in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and the Inflation Reduction Act. They said both Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla and GOP Rep. Ken Calvert of Corona have committed to working with the group to try and secure federal funding, but didn’t cite any money that had actually been locked down. Instead, the council members asked for more time and for the council to let the CPUC know they supported Norco’s efforts to move the project underground.

    In a 4-3 vote — with Edwards now joining Conder on Hemenway’s side, while Councilman Ronaldo Fierro went the other direction — the council supported sending the utilities commission a letter Hemenway had drafted that indicates interest in undergrounding the project. But instead of giving his working group more time, the council voted to “revisit the next steps of the working group” only if the CPUC sides with Norco’s to make Edison bury the rest of the project.

    Norco appeals to state regulators

    While Norco officials were participating in the working group, they also had their staff, legal team and a consultant working on a petition filed Oct. 2 with the CPUC asking the commission to make Edison bury the project’s remaining 5.3 miles of power lines.

    Norco’s success hinges on proving that circumstances have changed since the utilities commission approved the project. That’s because Riverside’s neighbor to the west missed the regular window to protest the project by more than two years. The CPUC approved Riverside’s plan for above-ground lines in March 2020, and interested parties then have one year to appeal such decisions.

    In Norco’s petition, the city argues there’s been a “dramatic increase in the risk of catastrophic wildfires” since the CPUC approved the project, while development and dry vegetation also have increased in the area over the past two years. There were an average of 4.9 fires per year in Norco for a couple years before the project was approved and in the year after the CPUC gave Edison the greenlight to install above-ground infrastructure. Since then, the petition states that number has jumped to an average of 13.1 wildland fires a year, with 23 blazes in the city from mid-March 2021 through the end of 2022.

    “Our communities are now seriously threatened by wildfires to an extent never seen in the past,” a bipartisan coalition of local elected leaders wrote in a letter supporting Norco’s efforts to move the project underground. Signers included Congressman Mark Takano, D-Riverside, along with GOP leaders Calvert, state Sen. Kelly Seyarto of Murrieta and Assemblyman Bill Essayli of Riverside, plus Supervisor Karen Spiegel, Hemenway and Conder.

    Also supporting the push to underground the project is Riverside County Fire Chief William Weiser.

    “Electrical transmission lines that are undergrounded represent far less of a hazard,” Weiser wrote. “In my professional opinion, undergrounding the remainder of the RTRP transmission line would significantly reduce the threat of wildland fires to the community of Norco, Corona, Jurupa and Riverside.” And if a fire does break out in the area, Weiser said that having “tall high voltage power lines in this area will complicate aerial firefighting, and will limit the effectiveness of firefighting fixed wing aircraft and helicopters.”

    There is some precedent for the CPUC to revise a project after the one-year appeal window has passed. The Norco petition cites several examples of when that’s happened, including reversing a five-year-old decision about a project last year following a petition from Southern California Gas.

    Responses to Norco’s petition are due by the end of the month, according to Terrie Prosper with the CPUC. A new administrative law judge and commissioner will then be assigned to review all of those materials, Prosper said, with no fixed date for when a final decision might come.

    One signal about how the commission might vote is coming from Northern California, where the CPUC has expressed concerns about the cost to customers for Pacific Gas & Electric to move 10,000 miles of overhead power lines underground in high fire risk areas.

    It wasn’t clear after the meeting what Riverside would do if the CPUC doesn’t grant Norco’s petition — or if the commission simply doesn’t respond, as they can when appeals are received outside the one-year window.

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    ​ Orange County Register