Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Idaho Power cites need for new lines

12-year-old discussion recharges in face of growth

Express Staff Writer

Growth in southern Wood River Valley is prompting Idaho Power to consider adding a power line to feed increasing demand.

A citizen advisory committee comprising 19 people from private and public life has been formed to weigh in on what could be a years-long process.

"The growth up here and some reliability questions have allowed us to look at bringing larger power lines into the valley," said Dan Olmstead, public relations manager with Idaho Power's Twin Falls regional office.

The Wood River Valley has no major power generation sources, so electricity has to be imported.

Two major power lines come in—one from Shoshone and one from Hagerman—to a substation near Hailey.

Another one is routed from north of Hailey to a substation near Sun Valley. Olmstead said the company is looking at adding a power line between those cities, not for growth reasons, but to ensure reliable supply in the event of the line going down. Winter weather, avalanche danger and other challenges in mountain communities make a second line advisable.

"It's always better to have two," he said.

The line that runs from Hailey to Sun Valley has had trouble in the past, "but not what we'd call catastrophic trouble," Olmstead said.

If the line were to go down, customers from East Fork north would be without power.

"I definitely think there needs to be an additional line," said Ron LeBlanc, committee member and Ketchum city administrator. "There's a reliability issue. So, if one goes down, you can power up part of the city."

The advisory group has representation from business and environmental groups, politicians, cities and counties, and a representative from the Bureau of Land Management, LeBlanc said. "It's a good cross-section of people that are capable of assessing a situation and coming up with a recommendation."

Twelve years ago, a similar group was formed to study the need for an additional line between Hailey and Sun Valley. That line was not deemed necessary at the time.

"Basically, they said if you don't have to build power lines, don't build them," Olmstead said.

The visual impact could be an issue, and that is part of the reason for community input.

"Aesthetics up here seems to be the major concern," Olmstead said, adding that Boise-area committee members expressed that concern.

Running the power lines underground is a possibility, but it is more expensive than overhead lines. In addition, there are environmental concerns to contend with: Major power lines have a much higher voltage than those in town, making them more dangerous to bury, LeBlanc said. In addition, the lines emit electrical currents that theoretically could harm wildlife walking on top of underground lines.

This year's review is part of a larger look at power needs in Idaho.

A Treasure Valley committee—from the Boise metropolitan area—went through the process. After the Wood River Valley study, similar groups will be formed in the Magic Valley and the Pocatello areas.

"Where we've got the ... growth it helps to have a long-range plan," said Lynette Berriochoa, an Idaho Power spokeswoman.

"We're looking to the build-out of the valley," added Kent McCarthy, Idaho Power system engineer. "We're developing that number and we'll develop the overall system (with that in mind)."

The advisory committee will meet monthly through June. One of the topics it will discuss is the location the new power lines might go.

The line north of Hailey runs along the east side of Highway 75 to East Fork. From there it travels up near Triumph, over the mountains and down the backside of the mountain into Elkhorn. It ends up at a substation behind the water wheel on Sun Valley Road by the red barn at the western entrance to Sun Valley.

"We don't know the (new) route or location," Olmstead said. "We just know where it'll end up."

The project's cost hasn't been determined yet because the design phase has not begun, Olmstead said. The cost, however, would be borne by customers. Rate increases would have to be approved by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. Approved increases would be spread over a period, perhaps as much as 30 years, and would be divided up among the company's 470,000 customers.

"It would be a very small (monthly) amount," McCarthy said.

More public comment will be solicited as the process moves forward, Olmstead said.

Idaho Power will take into consideration the committee's recommendations and lay out a plan of action.

"They'll give us recommendations on how they'd like the power system to look, but it still has to go through a (local jurisdiction) approval process," McCarthy said.

Construction, if approved, could begin sometime after 2009.

"It depends on how this project stacks up in importance against other projects," Olmstead said.

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