Idaho Power Map

The 9-mile backup transmission line would start at the Wood River Substation before heading underground around Owl Rock Road.

Idaho Power has asked the Public Utilities Commission to allow a 3% surcharge on Blaine County customers to finance $9.8 million in undergrounding costs for a state- and county-approved redundant transmission line through the Wood River Valley.

The rate hike—which the Blaine County commissioners begrudgingly asked Idaho Power to pursue after “fully exhausting” a range of other funding options—amounts to $3.42 per month for residential and small general-service customers and $14.36 for non-residential customers, the utility said in its Aug. 5 application to the PUC. In return, Idaho Power will bury distribution lines along the length of the transmission line—estimated to cost $5.7 million—and extend the burial of the full transmission line from Owl Rock Road to where the company originally planned to entrench it near Elkhorn Road (1.4 miles, costing $4.1 million).

Assessed across Blaine County, Idaho Power expects the surcharge to draw $1.1 million per year for 20 years, according to the petition to the PUC. The company came to that figure after factoring in income tax and discounting for the present value of the money it would need to spend on the project, growing at the 9.59% rate of return it can claim for forgoing other investments.

The county was not and still is not happy with the added expense of financing through Idaho Power. “Clearly, IPC shareholders were the winners on this carrying charge issue, to the detriment of Blaine County residents who are paying for it,” counsel for Blaine County, Ronald L. Williams, wrote in a petition to intervene at the PUC hearing filed on Tuesday, Aug. 17.

Either way, once Idaho Power considers the $9.8 million recovered, the surcharge will stop, company attorney Donovan Walker wrote in his memo to the PUC.

The plan represents the Blaine County commissioners’ last-ditch effort to limit the visual impact of the line on the Wood River Valley’s scenic corridor around state Highway 75. Burying the distribution line eliminates several wires from view and allows Idaho Power to install shorter polls for power transmission. But it’s a far cry from the commissioners’ 2019 demand that the entire state-approved 9-mile line go underground. Since Idaho Power already held approval from the PUC to construct it, Blaine County needed to foot any incremental cost increases—in this case, approximately $38 million to entrench the whole thing, according to Idaho Power estimates.

In the end, that proved too rich. On March 15, the county commissioners amended their initial conditional use permit to allow most of the construction above ground, with distribution lines and the Owl Rock-to-Elkhorn segment buried.

“While it is not ideal, the surcharge and partial undergrounding solution being put forward by IPC represents the most realistic and least intrusive option under the circumstances,” Williams wrote. “It is for this reason that Blaine County supports [Idaho Power’s] request to implement a surcharge to cover the costs of partially undergrounding the proposed transmission and existing distribution lines.”

So far, the PUC hasn’t set a hearing date.

Meanwhile, a legal challenge to the county’s permit allowing the transmission line is moving through 5th District Court. On April 9, Attorney Fritz Haemmerle filed a petition for judicial review on behalf of eight people, among them former Blaine County commission candidate Kiki Tidwell. The group of landowners argued that the commissioners did not have the authority to modify their original decision on the matter, and that the above-ground transmission line would devalue the Scenic Highway Overlay District as ensconced in county code.

That petition remains under judicial review.

The planned transmission line would provide a back-up power source for northern Blaine County and allow delayed repairs on the existing line—currently the only way for electricity to get north of Hailey. The existing line was built in the 1960s but has been reliable. It has experienced 3.3 hours of outage since 1980, according to a 2017 analysis by the Sierra Club, which opposes the project.

So does Tidwell, who also filed to intervene at the PUC hearing.

“If the PUC approves, this line is a done deal at the PUC level,” she told the Idaho Mountain Express on Wednesday. “And the big bill [goes] to all Blaine County residents.”

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