Mountain Town News: Dangers of above-ground power lines and the cost of underground |

Mountain Town News: Dangers of above-ground power lines and the cost of underground

California’s Camp and Woolsey fires put the electrical infrastructure upon which all mountain communities depend into vivid focus. A central question has been what value should be assigned to the benefits of putting transmission and other electrical lines underground.

Investigators had still not determined by Monday what caused the two fires. However, The Guardian reported on Saturday that the California Public Utilities Commission said it received reports from two utilities showing equipment issues occurred in areas close to where the fires ignited in the moments before flames began to spread.

On Monday, the Sacramento Bee reported that Pacific Gas & Electric had informed the PUC of a high-voltage outage in an area just a few minutes prior to the first reports of flames that quickly became the Camp Fire. The Guardian on Saturday said a utility had also reported problems about the time the fire near Los Angeles erupted and in the same vicinity.

A spokeswoman for the Utility Reform Network, a California advocacy group, pointed to a record of problems. “We don’t know yet if PG&E is responsible for the Camp Fire,” Mindy Spatt told The Guardian. “But we know there is a pattern there, and it is a pattern that is costing consumers potentially billions of dollars (in liability payouts) and costing lives as well.”

Several mountain towns in the Rockies have been talking about alternative delivery of electricity to improve resilience. Cost of putting lines underground has been part of the discussion.

In the Vail area, Holy Cross Energy proposes a new 115-kilovolt transmission line between a substation at Gilman, a now-abandoned mining town, and Avon, at the foot of Beaver Creek. The new transmission line would make the communities along Interstate 70 in what is commonly called the Vail Valley less vulnerable to risk of wildfire, equipment failure, or even sabotage.

Holy Cross has been working on creating that redundancy for two years, but the risk of wildfire was highlighted in July when a small fire temporarily threatened the main power lines along I-70. In response, the local water district ordered a ban on all outdoor watering. Without electricity, it has enough water to last for only a couple of days.

Just days before, a far bigger fire had threatened to put Aspen and Snowmass in the dark for the July Fourth weekend. The Lake Christine Fire that was started on July 3 by target shooters at a range near Basalt burned three of four power lines used by Holy Cross Energy to Aspen. The fire was about 20 miles down valley from Aspen. Had the fourth and final line gone down, Aspen would have been without power for several days. Repair crews cannot go into a fire area until it has been fully contained.

The two fires illustrate just how vulnerable mountain resort towns can be, due to their often-tortured, if wondrously scenic, geography. Telluride illustrates the vulnerabilities even better.

Twice in this century Telluride has lost power during ski season when transmission lines were damaged. The primary transmission line comes from the south, over Ophir Pass. In 2004 a snow slide took out one of those transmission lines. Telluride and Mountain Village, including the ski area, had three days of reduced power and rolling blackouts during the height of ski season.

In response, a new 51-mile backup power line was completed in 2013. The $56 million line comes from the west, in the Nucla area. The negotiations were protracted, involved lengthy hearings before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and a court case. The primary issue was the cost of undergrounding a 10-mile segment through calendar-worthy Wilson and Specie mesas. Some of the most expensive real estate in the Telluride area is located there.

The $19 million cost of undergrounding was paid in part by homeowners of the high-priced homes on the mesas but also the two towns, San Miguel County and both the wholesale provider, Tri-State Generation & Transmission and the distribution co-operative, San Miguel Power. Customers of the co-op are being charged via a surcharge over a 30-year period.

Art Goodtimes, then a San Miguel County commissioner, believes that undergrounding should be considered in the context of avoided cost. Underground lines pose less risk of causing wildfires. “If you’re really serious about (mitigating) wildfire risk, undergrounding makes sense if you consider the avoided costs, the dollars and cents, of containing wildfires,” he says.

Even so, Telluride, however, still did not have full redundancy. On Presidents’ Day Weekend in 2017 a refrigerator-sized boulder tumbled 800 feet and struck a power line pole. A comedy festival at the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride had to be finished in candlelight and a local grocery unloaded frozen goods at a discount.

That last-mile redundancy has since been addressed by the local San Miguel Power Association.

Underground lines always cost more. A May story in The Atlantic cited a 2012 study by the Edison Electric Institute that found underground lines had fewer problems during storms and were better for public safety all around. But the cost, said the article, starts at $1 million a mile. In mountainous areas, it’s much higher yet. Even the lower figure is 5 to 10 times what it costs to hang a line overhead.

This added cost can make undergrounding prohibitively expensive. The magazine cited a plan in North Carolina to put lines underground that was dropped. It would have caused electrical rates to rise 125 percent.

In Minturn, Holy Cross has indicated willingness to bury 1.7 miles of the 8.65-mile line. That would put it out of sight in most of Minturn, but not all. Minturn wants more undergrounding.

“Certainly Minturn wants to support redundancy in the system. We get it. We just love the idea of undergrounding for a variety of reasons,” says Michelle Metteer, the town manager.

There’s also the question of equity. Holy Cross has buried distribution lines in Snowmass Village, as was pointed out by Minturn resident Lynn Feiger in an op-ed published in the Vail Daily during September. Why, she seemed to ask, would it treat the Minturn area any differently?

As for Aspen, Holy Cross has been talking about distributed generation coupled with battery storage as one option for making the community’s electricity supply less vulnerable to wildland fires.

In Idaho, a similar discussion is under way. There, the path for a second transmission line to the Ketchum-Sun Valley area has been identified but not the details. Undergrounding is among the options, but at an additional cost that Idaho Power estimates at $34.5 million. The Idaho Mountain Express reports several financing options, none of them inviting or easy.

Grizzlies returning to the Whistler area, but slowly

WHISTLER, B.C. — A month ago, a local man was driving not far from Whistler, when he noted a bear and her cub across the Squamish River. He assumed it was a black bear, common around Whistler, even if the bear’s activity was uncommon: digging in the river sand.

Buried fish, he guessed.

Then, through the telephoto lens of his camera he saw something else: a large hump between her shoulder blades, a dished face and, most telling, huge claws. It was a grizzly.

Grizzly numbers have been growing in many parts of British Columbia, if not as rapidly as advocates would like. There have been encounters in the Whistler area even if the provincial wildlife officials consider the population there still threatened, along with eight other areas of British Columbia.

Pique Newsmagazine says the province reported an average eight grizzlies a year killed between 1976 and 2011, although experts believe there were many more. A recent study in the province’s Flathead Valley estimated that hunters killed as many illegally as died for all other reasons. The valley bumps up against the Continental Divide and is just north of (and part of) the valley of the same name in Montana. This is west of Glacier National Park.

Johnny Mikes, field director for Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative, calls for augmentation of existing bear populations in an area east of Whistler called the Stein Nahatlatch beginning in 2019. He cites reintroduction of the grizzly in the Cabinet Mountains between the Idaho panhandle and Montana’s Flathead Valley as a model of success. That Cabinet-Yaak initiative has grown the bear population from 15 bears in the 1990s to now 55 to 60 bears.

But in all this, there is tension, for people like the same lands that grizzly bears do. Large-carnivore specialist Tony Hamilton, who recently retired, recalls the “huge amount of hate mail” he got when he suggested mountain biking be restricted in a management area. He said he got opposition he hadn’t encountered since early in his career, when wildlife advocates and hunters were arguing about motorized access in the Kootenays.

Electric cars continue to move toward mainstream

DURANGO — It’s 160 miles from Durango to Moab, a journey that includes some of the most uninhabited country in the United States. But it’s a trip that can now be done easily in an electric car.

Electric charging stations continue to proliferate. There are at least a couple of charging stations between the two towns, and Moab itself has a fast-charger.

But newer electric cars have batteries able to go longer distances. The third generation of General Motor’s Leaf, for example, can travel 240 miles in warmer weather on a single charge.

However, there are limits, as was pointed out by the Durango Herald. There are not charging stations along unpaved backcountry roads. Nor are there electric motors for off-road or four-wheel-drive vehicles, at least not until next year. Several manufacturers plan to deliver electric four-wheel-drive SUVs.

“Analysts have long said one of the main things electric cars need to make the transition from early adopters to mainstream cars is more choices,” noted Green Car Reports in a July posting. “With at least four and as many as nine new electric SUVs coming in the next year and a half, 2019 is gearing up to be the year of the electric SUV.”

For Durango residents going to Denver, a new fast-charging station has been installed at Poncha Springs, roughly halfway between the two cities on the 330-mile drive. Between Durango and Poncha there are three charging stations.

Jackson Hole would prefer greater flexibility in use of tax

JACKSON, Wyo. — Voters in Teton County handily approved renewal of the 2 percent lodging tax, but the Jackson Hole News&Guide says that for some voters the decision to vote yes didn’t come easy.

Wyoming requires that 60 percent of lodging taxes collected in the valley must go to tourism promotion and 40 percent for mitigating visitor impacts. In Jackson Hole, there’s some sense that the portions should be inverted. The valley has a robust economy but even more obvious are the problems of dealing with that robust economy.

Two of the local representatives in the Wyoming Legislature, Sen. Mike Gierau and Rep. Andy Schwartz, both Democrats, agree that broadening the definition of promotion is an easier path than seeking to alter the 60-40 split.

The original legislation let Teton County have the 60-40 split but required other communities in Wyoming, if they adopted lodging taxes, to spend 90 percent of the revenues on promotion.

For some, the debate about whether to re-up the tax for another four years was a proxy about slowing growth, the newspaper says.

New bus service in Colorado avoids notorious slide paths

TELLURIDE — The popular Bustang has been gliding with great success up and down the Interstate 70 corridor from downtown Denver to Frisco, Vail and other communities. Now, a route has been added between Durango and I-70.

That route from Durango to Grand Junction, however, is not the most direct one. That direct route through Silverton hews to the Million Dollar Highway into Ouray, a segment with serious steeps both above and below. An avalanche shed constructed about a decade ago has reduced the risk, but Peter Prillowitz tells the Telluride Planet the route is just too risky.

“About 60 CDOT operators have died in the line of duty over the years, and a big percentage of them were driving snowplows,” says Prillowitz, the program director of the Southern Colorado Community Action Agency. The nonprofit agency is working with Colorado’s transportation agency to provide the service. Instead, the buses will take the longer route over Lizard Head Pass and through Telluride.

Bustangs are not like the yellow school buses of old. The new 35-seat coaches now linking Colorado mountain towns have WiFi, bathrooms and outlets for plugging in electronic devices. They also have tire chains that can be mounted with the flip of a switch when the bus is traveling more slowly than 30 mph.

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