BELLEVUE — If all had gone according to Puget Sound Energy’s initial plan, 16 miles of high-voltage power lines would already be running from Redmond to Renton, meeting what the utility says is a critical energy demand.
But “Energize Eastside,” Puget Sound Energy’s $150 million-plus project, is still in its permitting process after nearly six years of environmental-impact studies, public hearings and backlash from residents.
Puget Sound Energy insists the project is needed to provide power to about 400,000 people on the growing Eastside. But well-organized opponents, who have spent years fighting the project, question why the lines cannot be built underground and whether there are better alternatives. They also question whether there’s potential danger in building the line near a gas pipeline.
After six years, Energize Eastside continues to generate strong reactions from both sides, including the Eastside cities where residents would find new, taller poles. Newcastle City Manager Rob Wyman said residents have shown more interest in Energize Eastside “than any other project in the city’s history.”
Puget Sound Energy and the project’s opponents now await a ruling from the Bellevue Hearing Examiner, who will decide on the utility’s permit application to start construction in south Bellevue. That portion of the project calls for construction a new substation and adding 3.3 miles of 230-kilovolt lines, upgrading the 115 kV current lines, according to city documents. A kilovolt is 1,000 volts.
It’s unclear when the hearing examiner will issue a ruling. For PSE, the ruling will either bring the utility a step closer toward the first phase of construction, or represent another obstacle requiring appeal in an already long-delayed process.
Puget Sound Energy launched the Energize Eastside project in 2013 as a major expansion to the system’s capacity. The last major upgrade was in the 1960s, the utility says, and the area’s population has exploded since, with more projected growth in the future.
The utility says it has surpassed peak demand the past two summers and that, given population growth projections and an increase in air-conditioning usage, the demand will continue to grow.
“Our job is to deliver dependable, reliable energy, and this project is needed to do so,” said Keri Pravtitz, Energize Eastside community projects manager.
Patrick Bannon, president of the Bellevue Downtown Association, said business owners support and know there is a need for the upgrades, especially in downtown Bellevue, where the number of residents has nearly tripled since the early 2000s. He called the project’s timeline a “measured and thorough process.” The project would run along the existing corridor route, a few miles east of downtown.
“We’re going to see increased growth in downtown Bellevue, and as a neighborhood that is dynamic and growing and will continue to have a need for reliable energy,” he said. “If the project isn’t permitted, it will cause serious concern for our members and our downtown community as a whole.”
But opponents say the PSE’s projections are overblown, that the utility hasn’t considered other energy alternatives and that a construction accident could be catastrophic. The transmission lines would be built close to the Olympic Pipeline, which transports millions of gallons of gas.
Those opponents have formed several grassroots groups that have spent tens of thousands of dollars on advocacy, retained their own experts and lawyers and submitted hundreds of pages of testimony at public hearings. One of the groups is the Coalition of Eastside Neighborhoods for Sensible Energy (CENSE), which formed soon after Energize Eastside was first announced.
CENSE President Don Marsh, who lives in Bellevue, says he first got involved because he thought the project would impact his home, but soon he saw that it would be “a terrible thing for all neighborhoods.” He sees the issues as less about the homeowners and more about the environment, cost and safety.
“Even if Puget Sound Energy said tomorrow ‘oh, we found a new place to put the transmission line, don’t worry, it won’t be near your neighborhood,’ I would still be active in opposing it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s good for anybody.”
In Newcastle, resident Larry Johnson founded Citizens for Sane Eastside Energy (CSEE) in 2014 after researching the deadly Olympic pipeline explosion in Bellingham. In 1999, a gasoline pipeline ruptured, causing an explosion that killed one adult and two children. The same thing, he thought, could happen with the new transmission lines near his home.
“When I first heard about it I thought ‘well, the lines are old, time to replace it,’ but then I learned a whole lot more about how this could get to the point where it’s far more dangerous,” he said. “Then I changed my tune.” As a retired lawyer, Johnson been fighting the project since that time.
PSE’s current transmission lines have shared the corridor with the pipelines for decades, and the utility is working with Olympic to ensure safety is a priority, said project spokeswoman Diann Strom.
Each city has to review and approve PSE’s applications before they can start construction. In Newcastle, for example, city officials are reviewing whether the project meets its safety codes and whether it’s needed for the city, said Wyman, the Newcastle city manager. The current lines cut through the middle of the city, and while there wouldn’t be a new path, the replacement poles would be taller.
When Wyman looks out his City Hall window, he can see where the new lines would go and how close they are to the pipeline.
“The safety aspect is personal,” he said.
In Bellevue, the transmission lines would be strung on new steel monopoles that would be between 80 and 100 feet tall, replacing wooden H-frames that are about 60 feet tall. Construction in some areas would necessitate cutting down trees and other vegetation, though PSE says it will work with owners to preserve and replace as much as it can.
Opponents have questioned why the lines couldn’t be built underground, but PSE says costs would be up to eight times more and construction would be more disruptive to neighborhoods than overhead lines.
Opposition groups have also questioned why PSE hasn’t considered alternatives, like energy-storage batteries and solar panels. PSE says it looked at these alternatives, but found they weren’t practical for an area as large as the Eastside. It also looked at incentive programs and “time-of-use” rates, which would charge people high-demand times. The majority of customers, however, didn’t like those ideas, PSE said.
Marsh says PSE hasn’t done enough to look at other methods, instead focusing only on the current project.
“We think it’s appropriate, especially with climate concerns, to be very smart with our energy usage, and not the brute-force thing of putting poles and wires every place,” he said. “That is an old way to accomplish the objective.”
Even with the hearing examiner’s decision, both sides could appeal, delaying the permitting process — and projected construction — even longer.