Hundreds of Eastside residents don’t think Puget Sound Energy (PSE) has thought enough about alternatives to 18 miles of new, overhead transmission lines that would stretch from Renton to Redmond.
They’ve packed city-council meetings in orange shirts to say PSE hasn’t fully considered options such as burying the 230-kilovolt line — at least in some areas — to protect property values and views.
PSE says it has, and that the construction cost of an underground transmission line could be seven times more than for an overhead line.
Energy companies and state utility commissions around the country agree there are several drawbacks to building underground lines, including cost. On the Eastside, PSE estimates burying the lines could add $25 million to the price per mile.
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Going underground hasn’t been completely ruled out, though, said Andy Wappler, spokesman for PSE’s Energize Eastside project. But Wappler said PSE doesn’t want the additional cost to be passed on to other customers who already would be paying $150 million to $290 million for an overhead line intended to increase electric capacity for a rapidly growing area.
He said PSE needs to keep all its customers in mind.
“We’re not just providing service to multimillion-dollar homes in Bellevue,” said Wappler. “We don’t get to pick our customers; we serve everyone.”
For PSE to more seriously consider the option, Wappler said, neighborhoods that want underground lines would have to find another way to pay for the extra construction costs.
As much as Don Marsh, of Bellevue’s Somerset neighborhood, wants the line buried underground, or underwater in Lake Washington, or replaced with innovative battery technology, he acknowledged that discussions need to go further about how to fairly pay for a more expensive transmission line.
“It’s a valid concern,” said Marsh, 52, who’s played a leading role this spring rallying residents throughout Renton, Newcastle, Bellevue and Kirkland to become part of CENSE: Coalition of Eastside Residents for Sensible Energy.
Marsh said that although some of his neighbors would be interested in forking out a good deal of money to avoid a power-line view, the price to bury an almost milelong stretch would be too much to pay on their own.
No one — not PSE, CENSE or the Bellevue City Council — knows exactly how the neighborhoods could agree to pay extra. PSE has never put transmission lines underground, but other utilities generally ask neighborhoods to establish a special rate district to charge those customers higher rates.
CENSE members are also exploring whether they can get cities to pitch in somehow. It would be worth it for cities like Bellevue to consider doing so, Marsh said, especially because Seattle City Light recently hinted it might need to revamp its tall power lines on the Eastside soon as well.
“[The poles] give a feeling to the whole city: Instead of being the city of the beautiful view, it’ll be a major electric-line corridor like Renton, where you do get that feeling,” said Marsh. “We have the opportunity now to choose what the city will look like for at least the next 50 years.”
At least 800 people have signed CENSE’s online petition to put a one-year moratorium on any power-line decisions, but PSE wants Eastside residents to reach consensus by the end of the year on the location of the lines. The utility’s goal is to apply for permits next year and begin construction in 2017.
Bellevue City Council members have said at recent meetings they will study the options that neighborhoods might have for putting the line underground. But the city is still largely in an information-collection phase, said Bellevue spokeswoman Emily Christensen.
Part of that information will come in through Eastside residents at community forums throughout the summer, the first of which will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Bellevue City Hall.
It will also come from PSE, which has given the Bellevue City Council an initial primer on the drawbacks of going underground. In addition to the cost, underground lines take 10 times longer to construct, can take days or even weeks to repair, and last about half as long as overhead lines.
There are a lot of unpredictable costs as well, said Wappler. Part of the expense of installing each 230 kV line in the ground is the gel or sandlike insulation that is customized for the kind of soil surrounding the trench.
As expensive as underground power lines are, they’re not foreign to the Seattle area. City Light has a few underground transmission lines, some as high as 230kV, in downtown Seattle and between Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill.
City Light spokesman Tyson Lin said sometimes overhead and right-of-way space is so difficult to come by that undergrounding is seen as the more viable option. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent money for underground lines near its Seattle offices, but no neighborhood has spent the money for it on its own, he said.
“Basically, when you see the cost, people tend to back off,” said Lin.
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.