The Bellevue hearing examiner has ruled in favor of Puget Sound Energy’s “Energize Eastside” project, bringing the utility one step closer to construction on a portion of the 16-mile power line project that’s been at the center of a nearly six-year debate. 

The ruling approved PSE’s conditional-use permit for one phase of the $150 million-plus project that would build high-voltage lines from Redmond to Renton. The permit is limited to south Bellevue, where the utility hopes to build a new substation and add 3.3 miles of 230-kilovolt lines.

Two groups opposed to Energize Eastside said they plan to file appeals with the Bellevue City Council.

Puget Sound Energy — and opponents who have spent years and thousands of dollars to fight the project — had been awaiting the ruling since early April, following four days of public hearings.

[Related: Puget Sound Energy’s new president takes the reins as the utility faces enormous challenges]

The utility called the permit approval a “key milestone” for Energize Eastside, but there’s still no estimated date for when construction could begin. PSE still has to apply for additional permits in Bellevue and conditional-use permits in Newcastle and Renton, which will take months.

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“It’s momentum forward, and it gets us closer to construction,” said Keri Pravitz, Energize Eastside community projects manager.

PSE says the project is needed to provide reliable power to 400,000 people on the Eastside, which hasn’t had a major upgrade to its system’s capacity since the 1960s.

The proposed route would run along an existing path of power lines and will have transmission lines strung on new steel monopoles that are 20 to 40 feet taller than the wooden H-frames that are in use. The lines would be upgraded from the current 115-kilovolt lines. A kilovolt is 1,000 volts.

Opponents say PSE’s demand projections are overblown as residents turn to alternative energy methods, and that there hasn’t been enough analysis of the system loads during the summer. The hearing examiner in Bellevue sided with PSE.

“Common sense supports their concerns that extreme heat in summer months … poses a very real risk of failure for a system that has not been upgraded for decades to address increased demand caused by significant growth in the Eastside of King County,” the hearing examiner wrote.

Opponents have also brought up the potential danger in building the line close to the Olympic pipeline, which transports millions of gallons of gas. They cite the deadly Bellingham explosion in 1999, when an Olympic gas pipeline ruptured, causing an explosion that killed one adult and two children. One of the conditions for permit approval is that PSE develop a plan with Olympic to outline specific actions they’ll take to address pipeline safety.

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Don Marsh, president of the Coalition of Eastside Neighborhoods for Sensible Energy (CENSE) said members are disappointed by the decision, but not panicked.

“As PSE says, it’s a forward step, but it’s a small step in relation to all of the things that still have to come in order for them to build the project,” said Marsh, who lives in Bellevue. “There are still hearings that need to be held in Newcastle and Renton, and those aren’t even on the calendar yet.”

Along with CENSE, another group called Citizens for Sane Eastside Energy (CSEE) plan to appeal the decision to the Bellevue City Council, said Larry Johnson, a Newcastle resident who founded CSEE. He predicted the appeals process would eventually move to the court system.