Six hours of meetings brought Blaine County and Idaho Power Co. little closer to drafting a permissible plan for a state-approved redundant transmission line through the Wood River Valley last week, as the Planning and Zoning Commission digested more than two years of information over two nights.
Some of it was new for the commissioners, who are tasked with developing a viable plan to minimize the intrusion of the prospective line on the state Highway 75 scenic corridor from the Wood River Substation north of Hailey to its scheduled transition underground around Elkhorn Road, south of Ketchum.
The company, for its part, wants to deliver a backup power supply to its roughly 9,000 north valley customers—and the state agrees that’s necessary. The redundant line would back up the existing transmission line from Hailey to Ketchum, which follows a route to the east of Highway 75 into the East Fork area, and then through parts of Sun Valley.
Following last year’s approval to proceed from the state Public Utilities Commission, Idaho Power is allowed to bill ratepayers statewide to build a baseline version of the project, which would travel above ground until it reaches Elkhorn, before diving under—for a cost of around $30 million. (Almost $20 million of that would be spent on burying the last two miles of cable through Ketchum to Sun Valley Road, according to David Angell, Idaho Power’s delivery planning manager. The company is planning to foot the bill for that portion.)
Undergrounding the entire line is an appealing, though prohibitively expensive, alternative. Burying the rest of the transmission line would cost the county $34.5 million dollars, according to estimates by Idaho Power. Doing the same for distribution lines, which would likely sit lower on the same poles, runs another $5.7 million.
On its own, without help from cities or a voter-approved measure, the county can only guarantee $386,190 annually, according to staff—a little more than 1 percent of the cost to bury transmission.
Then, there is the possible cost of compensating Cox Communications, which currently shares space on Idaho Power’s poles, for its telecommunications cables. During a meeting Nov. 13, Cox Vice President Guy Cherp and company lawyer Ed Lawson held a hard line, saying the county should cover Cox’s million-dollar expense to move the line—or face accusations of discriminatory practices.
On Thursday, Cherp opened the meeting by clarifying a softer stance, saying the company wouldn’t seek reimbursement for aerial lines, as long as there’s room on the new poles.
Later, though, the commissioners were informed by Land Use and Building Services Director Tom Bergin that conduit—essentially trenched pipe that encases underground wires—already exists, unused, along the highway from East Fork Road up to the bridge near Hospital Drive.
Four paths were built when the Idaho Transportation Department expanded the highway, according to Tom Barber, Idaho Power’s engineering and construction manager. ITD owns two of them; Idaho Power and Cox have one, he said.
The report seemed to surprise the P&Z. During mediated discussions over the summer, the county and Idaho Power sides considered design elements to reduce the lines’ visual impact—including how to take individual lines out of sight—without talk of the existing infrastructure.
“It sounds to me that you want to bill the county for conduit that you’ve already put in place,” P&Z Chair Rachel Martin told Cherp.
Cherp told P&Z that he had informed them of the conduit during a previous meeting.
“As is our practice, when a trench is open, we often put conduit in the ground for future need,” he said Thursday night, calling it an infrastructure decision to be made by a private company. “It is not a no-cost option for us, as it relates to undergrounding.”
According to Barber, Idaho Power’s 4-inch conduit isn’t large enough to accommodate distribution lines, let alone transmission lines. It was designed for communication between substations, he said.
Pat Harrington, a lawyer who serves as Idaho Power’s corporate secretary, said the entrenched option was already considered by the company.
“We’re aware of ITD’s conduit, and what we’re able to use,” he said. “The fact is, we wouldn’t be able to use our existing conduit. We underwent quite a detailed study to arrive at our figures, and they haven’t changed.”
The commissioners, though, asked for further study.
“Knowing that there are four possible conduits is a lot more information that we haven’t talked about,” said P&Z Commissioner Pat Murphy. “It’s sort of 11th hour to learn this. The reason we denied the application originally was because we were trying to reduce the visual impact. ... This all goes back to what we can can afford to do, based on the numbers given to us about what it’s going to cost.”
Murphy asked for a more detailed breakdown of the bill, including the cost the company plans to absorb burying the line through Ketchum. (Ketchum does not plan to pay for any undergrounding, City Administrator Susanne Frick told the Idaho Mountain Express last month.)
The two sides will revisit all of that on Tuesday, Nov. 27, at 4:30 p.m. in the Old County Courthouse in Hailey. Plus, they’ll take a deeper look at “micrositing,” going through specific design elements, pole by pole.
For now, Idaho Power remains patient, Angell, the delivery planning manager, said.
“We have no aspirations to go out and start construction tomorrow,” he told the commissioners. “You have some time.”
Just how much? Idaho Power has no “drop-dead” date, according to Angell, but “at the end of 2020, our patience may be at its end.”
“I’ll put it this way,” he said. “My wife is very much encouraging me to retire, and I told her I’m aiming for the first quarter of 2021. My intention is to get this done before then—and the company very much wants to get this done before then.
“If we get these permits done, I can retire.”