After years of debate and planning, Idaho Power Co.’s proposal to build a second transmission line in the Wood River Valley is nearing a crucial decision before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

    Blaine County residents will be offered an opportunity to offer their thoughts and opinions first.

    On Tuesday, the PUC scheduled a public hearing on the second transmission line for Wednesday, July 26, in Ketchum.

    The hearing will begin at 7 p.m. at Ketchum City Hall, and any public testimony offered will be part of the commission’s official record for the case.

    Last fall, Idaho Power filed an application for a certificate of public convenience and necessity to build the 138-kilovolt transmission line. It is intended to serve as a backup power source if the existing transmission line were to fail. The existing line is the only power source serving the northern Wood River Valley, aside from small backup generators.

    The line would extend from a substation in Hailey to a substation on Sun Valley Road east of Ketchum. It’s estimated to cost $30 million, if the line runs above ground from Hailey, along state Highway 75 and up to Elkhorn Road, where it would go underground.

    For that project, Idaho Power’s broader base of ratepayers will pay for that $30 million cost. Local ratepayers would have to pay for additional costs beyond that $30 million, such as for undergrounding additional sections of the line.

    The county Planning and Zoning Commission considered an application for a conditional-use permit for the project during a series of hearings last year, and in January voted to deny the permit.

    However, the permit denial does not stop the process before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, though it could be considered by the PUC when it makes a decision on the transmission line.

    Idaho Power has filed an appeal of the P&Z decision and had a deadline Thursday to file a brief with the county, which would initiate a 14-day response period, county Land Use Director Tom Bergin said.

    The appeal will go to a hearing before the Blaine County commissioners, to be scheduled after that 14-day period ends, Bergin said. No public comment will be allowed during the appeal hearing.

PUC testimony

    The PUC case involves Idaho Power as well as a series of intervenors, which include the city of Ketchum, Cox Communications, the Sierra Club and Blaine County residents Kiki Tidwell and Laura Midgley, as well as Rock Rolling Properties, a company that owns property on Hospital Drive south of Ketchum.

    The Idaho Conservation League was a party to the case, but withdrew after filing a comment June 19.

    Since Idaho Power filed the application last year, the company, PUC staff, the Sierra Club, Ketchum Mayor Nina Jonas and others have offered dueling testimony about the need for the second transmission line, the cost and a proposed alternative project that would rely on renewable energy projects in the Wood River Valley.

    Idaho Power’s Dave Angell, Michael Youngblood and Ryan Adelman got the case started in November, when each filed testimony.

    PUC Staff Engineer Mike Morrison filed testimony May 5. The Sierra Club’s Michael Heckler also filed testimony that day.

    Jonas, Heckler and Angell filed rebuttal testimony June 23.

An unproven need?

    Morrison argued that Idaho Power has not proved the need for the second line.

    “The company has not provided compelling evidence that the benefits of a fully redundant line justify the $30 million project cost proposed for this project,” he stated.

    Since 1995, five unplanned outages lasting between five and 126 minutes have hit the Hailey-to-Ketchum transmission line, he said.

    “Had the company’s proposed second line been in service over that time period, it would only have provided a very small benefit for its $30 million cost,” he wrote.

    A longer outage of about 700 minutes did occur on Christmas Eve 2009. However, that occurred on a line feeding into the Hailey substation from the south, not on the Hailey-to-Ketchum line.

    Morrison suggested that Idaho Power could reconstruct the existing transmission line to increase its lifespan, and erect a temporary backup line while the reconstruction project is ongoing, to avoid service interruptions.

    “A second Wood River-Ketchum line is a very expensive means to achieve a relatively small reliability improvement,” he stated.

    In rebuttal testimony, Angell disagreed with Morrison’s arguments.

Angell wrote that Idaho Power follows reliability and service-quality standards that align with national standards. Those standards guide the utility’s decision-making on when a redundant line is needed, and the northern Wood River Valley’s circumstances merit the redundant line.

“The north valley area has grown to such a size, is relatively remote with difficult-to-access facilities, and has a substantial resort economy that the risk of harm from a potential long-term outage … is too great to be served by a single, radial feed,” Angell stated.

    And that was true “no matter how reliable that single transmission line may have been in the past,” Angell stated. “The redundant transmission source is the most cost-effective means of providing the required reliability improvements.”

    Jonas wrote that Morrison’s arguments mean the PUC does not have to rush into granting Idaho Power’s application. Rather, the commission could wait and do further analysis of costs and the feasibility of an alternative project that relies on renewable energy.

    “This need for an independent analysis continues to be overlooked by [Idaho Power],” she stated.

    Idaho Power replied that it has done analysis of an alternative project, using industry-standard modeling software. Its report was reviewed by the Idaho National Laboratory.

    Heckler argued that the analysis was not objective.

    “Multiple alternatives need to be properly evaluated without a predetermined outcome in mind,” he wrote. “The analysis submitted with the application is insufficient.”

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