No one wants a repeat of the Christmas Eve power outage that darkened and chilled the valley for more than 24 hours in 2009. But preventing major outages while taking into consideration factors such as cost, the environment and aesthetics complicate finding a quick-fix solution.
Idaho Power, with the help of a community advisory committee, put together the Wood River Electrical Plan in 2007 to improve reliability and reduce the risk of long, unplanned outages. The plan guides Idaho Power in the long-range service of transmission service into the valley.
The goal now is to decide how to implement powerline projects in that plan.
As the first step of a months-long public process, company representatives presented options to the Ketchum City Council on Jan. 17, the Sun Valley City Council on Jan. 19 and the Blaine County commissioners on Jan. 24.
Bryan Hobson, senior planning engineer, told elected officials that the advisory committee emphasized reliable service.
"Their primary conclusion was that the primary and immediate need for the valley relative to the electrical system is ... reliability," he said Thursday. "We need to shore up and improve the reliability into the valley. We're all about reliability. We're all about keeping the lights on."
According to the company, the existing power transmission system does not adequately meet the valley's current need for reliable power.
The north valley has one 138,000-volt transmission line bringing power to residents. The line comes from a substation north of Hailey and feeds into the Ketchum and Elkhorn substations. Installing a second 138,000-volt line would provide a backup if one fails due to weather or technical problems.
Based on the advisory committee's recommendation, Idaho Power is pursuing a second transmission line to the north valley. It would be 12 miles long, stretching along state Highway 75 from the Wood River transmission station north of Hailey.
The new line would run in place of existing overhead distribution power lines along Buttercup Road and the highway.
Len Harlig, one of the 19 members of the advisory committee, said residents need a backup line.
"All of us should get behind the idea of doing something," he said Thursday. "We have a fairly serious condition which threatens the upper valley, in particular with a single line and all of its possible ramifications."
Initially, he said, committee members believed there could be an alternative to a second line, be it increased use of hydropower, solar, conservation or some combination thereof, which could maintain reliability without additional lines.
"We came in with the idea of we're going to look for some other way to do this," he said.
But, he said, throughout the planning process, the committee came to believe that nothing they did collectively with alternative energy could adequately address the issue.
"We couldn't come to that point," he said.
Transmission lines, he said, still would be necessary.
Having a second, or redundant, transmission line into the north valley increases reliability, Hobson said, because failure on one line would leave the other line operational. He added that its placement nearer the highway would improve access for repair crews.
"The existing line is placed in such a way that it would be very difficult to access that line in the wintertime if we had a major failure due to a snow event or avalanche," he said. "Whereas along the highway or highway corridor, it would be much easier to access, troubleshoot and repair."
Ketchum resident Karen McCall, however, questioned the need for a second line.
"It's not a capacity issue," she said at the Ketchum council meeting, adding, "The existing line has an excellent record of reliability."
In an interview, McCall said much of her reasoning comes from Idaho Power data, including the reliability of the transmission line.
"Their owns statistics show it doesn't merit a new line because it's so reliable," she said. "If we had backup lines everywhere, we'd have lines crisscrossing the country just for backup."
She also said the "peak needs assessment" is for the entire Wood River Valley, not the north valley, a point Idaho Power should highlight when discussing a north valley line.
"They're not giving the clear picture to the public, so it's misleading," she said.
Instead of a second line, she said, she hopes the company will invest more in the "smart grid,"—which applies digital technology to the system to allow all parts to communicate with each other—as well as alternative energy.
"If they'd had the smart-grid technology in 2009, they'd have seen the ice building up, they'd known exactly where it was instead of having to search for it, they would have seen the repair issues," she said.
She credits Idaho Power with educating the public about alternative energy and placing some resources in that arena, but she said she wishes more were directed there.
"We should be looking at any kind of renewable technology that's possible," she said. "They're living in the old paradigm. We're living in a changing world. We have to think about how we're going to take care of all the pressing problems that climate change is bringing us. This line brings that up for conversation."
Over or under?
Advisory committee members also in the beginning had a preference for burying power lines—until they learned the cost, Harlig said.
The cost to underground lines from St. Luke's Wood River northward would be significant: between $7 million and $15 million.
"It will vary dramatically by where we transition from the overhead to underground line, if we do put an underground line in," Hobson said. "The shorter length of underground line you have, the lower the costs are going to be."
If the lines are built overhead, the cost is spread among all Idaho Power customers. However, the local community would have to pay the difference between the underground line and what it would cost for an overhead line.
One way to pay for undergrounding the lines is a local improvement district, wherein affected property owners pay for the infrastructure improvements.
Ketchum resident Mickey Garcia said Thursday that a second overhead line was the best course of action.
"You need to be pragmatic," he said. "The cheapest way is above ground and redundant."
Idaho Power plans to schedule meetings with the Idaho Transportation Department, potentially affected landowners, homeowners and special-interest groups.
This spring, the company plans to host open houses, where it will gather more input and narrow in on a final route.
Once routes are selected, it will begin the permitting process, possibly late this year, and discuss formation of a local improvement district, if needed. Idaho Power spokeswoman Lynette Berriochoa said depending on the route selected, the company will likely need permits from the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley and from Blaine County, and will need to negotiate easements with property owners.
Construction could begin in 2014.
"The goal is to minimize the outage risk," Hobson said. "We are committed to getting as much community input as we can and incorporate that into what we hope would be the best solution for Idaho power and for the valley."
Rebecca Meany: firstname.lastname@example.org