Underground the Lassen Substation Power Lines!


Underground the Lassen Substation Power Lines!

Current power lines crossing Hatchery Lane, due to be replaced with taller poles and increased voltage.

After the complete destruction of Paradise, CA and Greenville, CA in above-ground powerline-initiated fires, you would think that the authorities and electric power companies would do the best they can to assure that any new construction was undergrounded and fire safe. But you would be wrong. Pacific Power is still planning to replace a major above-ground line just west of I-5 and Mt. Shasta City, not with an undergrounded line, but with 1.5 miles of above ground metal tower-supported lines.

The plans, according to internal emails (obtained by W.A.T.E.R. through Public Record Act requests), were intended mainly to feed the Crystal Geyser Water Company (CGWC) plant, which wanted to start up ASAP, even bypassing an environmental review. But now that CGWC has abandoned its plans, there is plenty of time to do this power project right, which is to say, underground.

The powerline runs through an area that the CPUC calls "Tier 2" "where there is an elevated risk for utility-associated wildfires". The Tier 2 zone actually runs in a narrow channel between Tier 3 zones ("extreme risk"). Pacific Power is expected to "conduct annual patrol inspections of their overhead distribution facilities in rural areas of Tier 2 and Tier 3." Overhead powerlines are particularly vulnerable to flying and falling tree branches, lightening strikes, ice storms, wind, and sabotage.

Orange line is the "upgraded" power-line path

To avoid these problems, the state requires power companies to make funds available annually for undergrounding under "Rule 20", which is currently under review for possible modification, in part to provide greater benefit to rural areas. If a line is already slated to be replaced, like the one west of Mt. Shasta City, the most cost-effective way to underground it would be to do so as part of the same project.

But Rule 20 is not the only source of funds. Or at least it would not be the only source, in any system that is democratic and fair. The undergrounding project should cost less than $10 million, based on experience in rural areas elsewhere. Subtract from that the money saved by not replacing the existing line with another one with even taller and uglier towers. And also subtract from that the money saved by decreasing the risk to nearby residences in the path of a utility-caused wildfires. Subtract from that the cost of Tier 2 annual inspections and repairs.

Pacific Power is a private corporation, owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway corporation. Warren Buffet personally has a net worth of $100 billion. Why can't he part with a mere 1/10,000 of that to make Mt. Shasta more fire safe, in a project that is virtually "shovel ready"? Why do billionaire private "investors" get to determine how little they will spend to protect the safety of people in small towns that they endanger?

If a fire started in the segment in question, it would likely spread north in the valley and directly jeopardize at least an estimated 314 separate residence structures (value estimated at over $80 million) to the immediate north. After such a disaster, it would be impossible to make the residents' lives whole again, and the cost in compensation to them and to the economy of this area would be astronomical, and continue for years. Compared to that, money spent in undergrounding is pocket change, especially for Berkshire Hathaway. But a private corporation fundamentally exists to make more money for shareholders, not to serve its customers. A much better system would be where the public really owns their public utility (as happens in many other places) and runs it for local benefit.

Todd Andres, the regional business manager for Pacific Power, gave a talk at the Mt. Shasta Rotary Club in August in which he evaded answering questions about the Lassen transmission line replacement. But he did see that the questions were "kicked upstairs" to Kevin Schiedler, Pacific Power's Wildfire Mitigation Delivery Director.

Mr. Schiedler, who eventually addressed the issue of fire hazard in an email, made interesting comments. He estimated the cost of undergrounding (apart from the savings listed above) is between $6M and $100 M per mile, "the wide range likely influenced by transmission line voltage, terrain, and right of way costs". In other words, Pacific Power has never done a real study of the costs and benefits and environmental impacts of undergrounding this particular project. It should be done! Why settle for a rough guess that varies by a factor of 16? Does not Pacific Power think that fire safety in this area is worth the effort to do the job properly (i.e., underground)?

W.A.T.E.R. and other community groups and individuals have been objecting to the overhead power line plans for almost 5 years, in letters and in CPUC public hearings. Neither Pacific Power nor the CPUC (which is a government agency essentially in thrall to the private utilities they regulate) have paid attention. Mr. Schiedler does end his email on a constructive note, hopefully not just the usual corporate smarm: "...we welcome constructive discussion on these plans. ". Maybe it is still not too late!

We encourage all community members to send Mr. Schiedler an email at taking him up on his offer and let him know that, for the safety of our communities, the transmission lines associated with the Lassen Substation project must be put under ground.