High-wire act

TANC power-line proposal runs into resistance

These power lines between Oroville and Chico are among the many radiating out from Oroville Dam, a major power source.

These power lines between Oroville and Chico are among the many radiating out from Oroville Dam, a major power source.

Photo By Meredith j. cooper

Comment period
The TANC project’s “public scoping” runs through July 30 and is being conducted by the Western Area Power Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Energy. Check www.wapa.gov for specifics.

Beyond the fence surrounding Charles and Margie Ball’s neatly landscaped back yard in Capay, rows of newly planted sunflowers stretch for a half-mile into the distance. In a few weeks, when the plants bloom, the field will be a sea of yellow and green.

But when the Balls look at their field, they see something else altogether, at least in their imaginations: giant metal towers bestriding the land, five to a mile, connected by thick cables of electricity lines crackling and humming day and night.

The Balls, who are 85, have been married 65 years and have owned the 97 acres on which their house sits since 1951. Their field and home are directly in the path of one of the three possible routes through the Sacramento Valley of a massive new 500-kilovolt electricity transmission line. If that route is selected, it will cut a wide swath through Capay, a pretty area of small farms, dairies and ranchettes about 10 miles north of Hamilton City, including the Balls’ farmland.

The possibility has the couple frightened.

“It took me 35 years to pay for this place,” Charles Ball says of their house and land. “If the power line goes through the middle of it, my kids’ inheritance is shot.”

Ball worked at Butte Creek Rock—later Baldwin Contracting Co.—in Chico for 30 years; in the 1960s, he poured the concrete for the platforms on which the power lines traversing Upper Bidwell Park are set. He is aware that the right-of-way for those lines is on another of the three proposed routes. If it’s selected, his land will be unscathed, but there will be a third power line crossing the park.

“They’re not going to like that in Chico,” Margie Ball said, understatedly.

Nobody really likes power lines. They’re ugly and vaguely scary, like creatures out of a sci-fi movie, giant metal monsters gobbling up the land.

But they’re also necessary for getting power from far-away sources—whether hydropower dam, natural-gas facility or coal-fired plant—to users, most of whom live in cities.

The agency that has the Balls’ land in its sights is the Transmission Agency of Northern California, or TANC, and its power-line project is called the TANC Transmission Project, or TTP. TANC is a joint-powers agency representing 10 cities that run their own power companies (Redding, Gridley and Biggs are among them) and five public power districts in Central California, including the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

Because it’s a public agency, TANC, like the cities and districts it represents, enjoys the power of eminent domain—the right to commandeer private property (with just compensation) for public use.

The $1.5 billion project would string 600 miles of new lines from power sources yet to be built in Lassen County first to the Redding area, then south through the Sacramento Valley to the Bay Area and into the northern San Joaquin Valley. It proposes three possible north-south routes through the valley, which it calls the “central segment” of the project.

Margie and Charles Ball in their back yard in Capay. Their home and the field beyond their fence are directly in the path of “Central 2,” the middle of the three alternative power-line routes proposed for this area.

Photo By robert speer

The easterly route, called “Central 1,” runs along the east side of the valley, skirting Chico on its east side and Oroville on its west side before passing through the Palermo area. At Marysville, it threads the needle between the city and Beale Air Force Base. This route takes advantage of existing rights-of-way at several points.

The second route runs down the center of the valley, roughly following the Sacramento River. Called “Central 2,” it skirts Red Bluff on the west and then passes through Capay to points south. It bypasses heavily populated areas, but it does go through rich rice-farming country and skirts or crosses over several state and federal wildlife areas, including the Gray Lodge Wildlife Management Area, before wrapping around the Sutter Buttes. This route would require a new right-of-way.

The third proposed route, “Central 3,” runs along the west side of the valley, passing just east of Black Butte Lake and then along the base of the Coast Range foothills. At about Winters, it turns westward toward Sacramento, passing through an area in Solano County with many small farms. This route also has existing rights-of-way.

None of the three options is currently preferred over the others, Bryan Griess, TANC’s assistant general manager, told the Butte County Board of Supervisors during a briefing session on May 19. The project’s timeline calls for completing a draft environmental-impact report by spring 2010 and a final EIR a year later, after which the preferred option will be selected—or the agency could choose “no alternative.”

There will be numerous public hearings during the environmental process, Griess said. The project is expected to be completed by 2014.

Griess said TANC was proposing the project for several reasons, including a desire to increase power reliability. Existing lines are old, with some dating “from the 1940s and ’50s.” The new lines will be much more efficient, he said.

In addition, the lines will be used to transmit power from renewable sources, thereby contributing to meeting the mandates adopted in accordance with AB 32, the state’s global-warming initiative. Currently, power providers are legally mandated to obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewables by the end of 2010, and new bills in the Legislature would hike that to 33 percent by 2020, Griess said.

The proposed routes are adjustable, he said, adding, “We will not be putting these facilities over permanent structures”—though whether that includes mobile homes, which are ubiquitous in Butte County, was unclear. The towers will be spaced 1,200 to 1,500 feet apart.

In a separate interview, he confirmed that, if the route through Bidwell Park is selected, a single 500-kilovolt line will be constructed next to the two lines already there.

The supervisors were respectful toward Griess but skeptical about the project. Supervisor Jane Dolan, for example, pressed him about whether TANC had contacted the Butte County Association of Governments, which is currently writing a major habitat-conservation and natural-community conservation plan (HCP/NCCP) for the county, or looked at its Web site (www.buttehcp.com). No, Griess responded.

She noted that the cities of Gridley and Biggs were both sponsors of the HCP, implying that if the power-line route clashed with the HCP, the cities would be in a quandary.

But one of the biggest issues, it turned out, was TANC’s apparent failure to do a good job of alerting the public and taking comments. Griess said the agency had notified cities and counties and landowners in the path of the proposed routes and put notices in 60 newspapers, but several landowners stepped up to say they’ve gotten no notice.

“How were we supposed to know about this?” one aggrieved woman asked the supervisors.

Map showing the three alternative power-line routes through the northern Sacramento Valley.

Map Courtesy of Transmission agency of northern california

“We didn’t know either,” Dolan responded. “I only found out last week.”

“Last week” was in fact a good two weeks after the initial deadline for public comment on the project, April 30. And Dolan was not alone: Public officials and landowners up and down the TTP’s proposed routes have complained of lack of notice, so much so that TANC has been forced to extend the public-comment deadline twice, first to May 31 and then, just last week, to July 30.

Whether that will soften the suspicion the project has generated—“They’re trying to hide it,” Margie Ball said, echoing the opinion of more than a dozen landowners interviewed for this article—remains to be seen.

In the end, the supervisors asked planning staff to write up official comments on the project addressing TANC’s need to obtain more information about BCAG’s habitat-conservation plan and the county’s current general-plan process.

Supervisor Maureen Kirk, whose district includes Bidwell Park, said she thought a line that goes through the park, the Canyon Oaks subdivision and Oroville affects too many people. Dolan, noting that opinions aren’t sufficient, urged staffers to “come up with really strong arguments” why the route through Butte County is wrong.

Landowners have many concerns besides notification, of course, as was made abundantly clear recently when a group of nine residents of the Palermo area gathered at the home of David and Cathy Paap.

The Paaps live in a small but sturdy house they recently built themselves, with help from a son-in-law, on Cynthiann Lane, a dirt-and-gravel foothills road about a quarter-mile east of Upper Palermo Road. This is an area of numerous ranchettes and mini-farms set among blue oaks and rolling hills. It’s especially popular among blue-collar retirees.

A few days earlier, Cathy Paap was one of the people who addressed the supervisors about the TTP. Explaining that she and her husband had moved to the area from San Diego because “it’s so beautiful,” she said they’d used their life savings to build their retirement “dream home.”

At the time they bought their land, she said, nobody said anything about a power line. “Now we’re right under it,” she complained.

What makes the threat especially acute for the Paaps and their neighbors is that they already live near a power line. In fact, the proposed route follows the right-of-way of that line, which passes by the Paaps’ house just on the other side of the road, about 50 yards away. And there’s yet another line about a half-mile to the east.

The Paaps knew the nearby line was there when they moved in, of course, but they sited their house so its view windows looked the other away, over miles of oak trees, and the line was far enough away not to bother them. But the idea of another line, one twice as big, coming through is unsettling.

Most of the people meeting in the Paaps’ living room were retirees, and many of them spoke of health concerns.

One man, Johnny McConnell, said he had a pacemaker inserted and worried how a power line would affect it. “I’m between two power lines already,” he said, “and if they put in another one, I’ll have to move.”

Map showing entire 600-mile proposal. TANC intends to build two of the three proposed 230-kilovolt lines in the North Segment, so that if one is shut down by forest fire, the other will still function.

Map Courtesy of Transmission agency of northern california

Leo Garibaldi, who owns the property across the road from the Paaps and lives virtually beneath the existing power line, said he feels the effects. “My wife and me, we’re tired all the time,” he said.

One man said that at certain times he sees sparks leaping from the edge of his wheelbarrow.

Whether the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) surrounding high-voltage power lines cause illness has been debated for years, with researchers coming down on both sides of the issue. It’s worth noting, however, that two 2001 studies done for the California Public Utilities Commission by three scientists at the California Department of Health Services found that among the increased risks associated with close proximity to EMFs are miscarriage, childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and suicide.

The PUC refused to release the study and did so only under pressure from the California First Amendment Coalition, which monitors violations of the Public Records Act and open-meeting laws.

The impact upon trees and wildlife was another concern expressed. The land beneath the existing power line has been stripped of vegetation across 200 feet, and the residents worry the same thing will happen with the new line. “The rattlesnakes won’t even be there,” one man said.

In fact, as Griess informed the supervisors, no trees taller than 15 feet will be allowed under the lines. That would eliminate most of the oaks in the area.

Residents also worried about property values and having to leave the area. “All of us are getting too old to move,” one woman lamented.

To these Palermo folks, the big-city agencies behind the TTP are exploiting Northern Californians to obtain electricity, much as other districts do to get water.

“We do want to be cleaner in our power,” Cathy Paap said, “but all of this power is going to the Bay Area.”

A couple of people suggested that the money for the lines be used instead to increase the subsidies for onsite solar installations and nearby power plants that mine the tides. A woman named Betty McCorkle pointed out that locally generated energy is “more affordable, less vulnerable to terrorism, and less destructive to the environment. There’s no reason why we have to transport it 600 miles.”

Power companies agree that solar is an important part of the energy equation, but they insist it’s not the entire answer.

“When you start talking about 33 percent [renewable] by 2020, we have to start going farther out to get that additional energy,” Jim Shelter, the assistant general manager for energy supply at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, told Sacramento Bee reporter Ed Fletcher.

If the TTP for some reason doesn’t work out, the district will just have to find green energy elsewhere to replace existing plants that run on natural gas, he said.

David and Cathy Paap’s recently built Palermo “dream home” is in the path of the western, or “Central 1,” proposed route. There’s already a power line just across the road from their house, and if you look closely behind them you can see another about a half-mile to the east.

Photo By meredith j. cooper

Critics of the project say there’s a Field of Dreams aspect to the whole thing, with TANC officials believing if they build the lines, private investors will come to build the power generation plants in Lassen County.

So far, only two small power plants have been proposed in that county, and one of the proposals has been sent back for more work. In addition, the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative, the collaborative stakeholders group analyzing California’s electricity transmission needs, has determined that the potential power sources in Lassen County come with high environmental costs and weak economic prospects.

The best potential sources of renewables are in Southern California, RETI states.

Residents of Lassen County have mixed feelings about the prospect of more plants, according to a May 21 article in the Capital Press, an agricultural news source. They welcome the jobs, but worry about the impact on ranching and the beauty of the area, which attracts tourism.

Critics of the TTP say it’s actually old, outdated technology in a green guise. Transmission lines, they say, are fundamentally inefficient. They lose much of the power along the way, and when they’re carrying “renewable” power, they inflict environmental damage in the name of green energy.

The impetus behind such lines is great these days, however. As part of his Reinvestment and Recovery Act, President Obama has committed $2 billion to building new transmission lines and $4.5 billion to transforming the current transmission grids into so-called “smart grids.” These use digital devices and sophisticated computer programs to make the existing grid much more efficient.

In addition, the stimulus package includes $6.5 billion in low-cost loans to be administered by the Western Area Power Administration, which oversees distribution of power produced by federal hydropower plants, such as Bonneville and Shasta, as well as renewables, and is in close collaboration with TANC.

Environmentalists aren’t unaware of the irony inherent in opposing transmission lines meant to carry pollution-free renewable energy. But there’s a significant and growing segment of green-energy researchers and advocates who believe that a combination of local networks of small plants and renewables, rooftop photovoltaics and interlinking and load-leveling “smart” grids, along with increased conservation, could minimize or eliminate altogether the need for new transmission lines.

The problem, they say, is that there’s no money for the power companies in this alternative. As regulated industries, they make a guaranteed income on investments, not when customers convert to solar.

Despite the financial and governmental resources arrayed against them, opponents of new transmission lines are organizing and making themselves heard. A recent meeting in Red Bluff, for example, drew 435 people, even though nobody from TANC was present.

Residents of Round Mountain, in Shasta County, are fighting fiercely, although the town is tiny, just 350 people. It already has a major PG&E substation and a half-dozen power lines running into it. Now TANC wants to add another substation and bring in more lines.

“Why does one community have to always sacrifice for the good of all?” asked activist Beth Messick, as reported in the Sacramento Bee. “We are not averse to the big power lines. We just don’t want them coming right over our community.”

Round Mountain residents have created a Web site, www.stoptanc.com, expressing their opposition.

The problem, ultimately, is that in all likelihood some people will have to pay the price for transmitting electricity to Northern California’s cities. As Charles Ball put it, “Somebody’s going to get hurt no matter where they go.”

His wife, Margie, with the wisdom borne of 85 years on the planet, may have expressed it best: “I just hope they choose the path that affects the least amount of people.”