A proposal by Idaho Power Co. to lay an underground, high-voltage power line from St. Luke’s hospital through Ketchum to Sun Valley, at a cost of $14.2 million, sent Ketchum leaders scrambling to gather more information on Thursday.
The discussion came as part of an update from Idaho Power Co. representatives to the Ketchum City Council and Planning and Zoning Commission. Idaho Power is planning to establish a second electricity transmission line from Hailey to Ketchum to create redundancy in the system and reduce the likelihood of blackouts in the northern Wood River Valley. Currently, only one transmission line carries electricity from a substation in Hailey to another substation in Sun Valley. Idaho Power wants to run a second transmission line adjacent to state Highway 75, where a smaller distribution line now exists.
Idaho Power facilities siting coordinator Mike Berry told city leaders that Idaho Power has conducted 38 community meetings with stakeholders over the last three years to discuss the plan. Berry said the project would provide much-needed redundancy for the existing high-voltage line built in 1962 that snakes northward from Hailey to Sun Valley. The 138-kilovolt line extends several miles east into East Fork before crossing hills in Sun Valley and terminating at the historic water-wheel power generation station on Sun Valley Road. Behind the historic water wheel is a modern substation that distributes power to thousands of residents in the north valley.
However, getting all north valley residents behind a collective funding mechanism for an underground backup line could prove troublesome, Berry said.
“This is about the only route we feel is permissible,” he said. “We are ready to make an application.”
Ketchum law does not allow the installation of new overhead power lines in city limits.
The proposed project through the valley would replace new wooden power poles installed in recent weeks along Highway 75 as part of an Idaho Transportation
Department highway-widening project. The high-voltage line would be mounted above the lower-voltage distribution lines on steel poles. The new structures would be 56 feet tall.
The proposed undergrounding project would also involve tunneling under the Big Wood River at the old train trestle bridge just north of the hospital, and could also take underground many old power lines in Ketchum.
Berry said the north valley could spread the cost of the project among residents in a “benefit area” from Gimlet to Galena Lodge, at a one-time cost of $230 dollars per $100,000 of property valuation.
The project would have to be approved by three separate local improvement districts, one for benefited Blaine County residents, one for those in Ketchum, and one for those benefited in Sun Valley. Under state law, the LID initiatives would have to be passed by three-quarters of each of its residents, and could be blocked in any or all jurisdictions if two-thirds of its members protest it. County residents with property lots exceeding 5 acres would be exempt from the assessments.
Berry said Idaho Power plans to apply to Blaine County for a conditional use permit for the project in January. He said the affected jurisdictions could then begin the LID funding process. If the measures pass, construction on the underground line could be completed in 2016.
Planning and Zoning Commissioner Steve Cook called for more information about alternative plans, including the possibility of storing electricity for use during blackouts or other emergencies, as a means of reducing the valleys’ consumption of energy from coal-fired power plants.
Cook said committing to a new power line from Idaho Power that would consume more coal was “old school.”
About 30 percent of Idaho Power’s electricity derives from coal processing plants in Wyoming, Nevada and Oregon. Coal-powered plants pollute more than other energy sources and are believed to be a major contributor to global warming.
Mayor Randy Hall called for city staff to meet with Idaho Power representatives before bringing the proposal back for a public hearing at a time and place to be announced.
“We need more information and a strategic plan for moving forward,” Hall said.
Ketchum Planing and Zoning Commissioner Michael Doty said it is a “huge waste” that the new wooden poles installed in the valley would have to be replaced with new steel poles, under the proposal.
Mike Pepper, an Idaho Power consultant, said Idaho Power saw the opportunity five years ago to combine the ITD highway-widening project with the power line installation, therefore saving money by replacing the poles only once.
“There was a concerted effort to work together, but we couldn’t push it [the power-line siting process] that fast,” Pepper said. Project manager Tom Barber, who was also present at Thursday’s meeting, said the company replaces “a handful” of wooden poles each year. He said some of them are rotting away.
“We replaced six last year, working at night, because we have to shut down power to do the work,” he said.