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Power to the People

news pgeConcerned locals take on regional power goliath’s plan for large-scale utility pole construction.

Faced with the installment of huge steel utility poles towering over their neighborhoods, a band of Santa Cruz County residents has organized against a questionable change in infrastructure proposed by Pacific Gas & Electric Company.The plan in question would replace the existing wooden utility poles on a 7.1-mile stretch—between the Rob Roy substation in Aptos and the Green Valley substation in Watsonville—with tubular steel utility poles measuring 85 and 105 feet in height. The current wooden poles measure 40-45 feet and 60 feet in height. Known as the Santa Cruz 115 Kilovolt Reinforcement Project, and first proposed to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in January 2012, the plan would also install a brand-new 1.7-mile high-voltage line of the same steel poles to portions of Cox Road and Freedom Boulevard.

“Our goal really is to make sure that this project is appropriate, and it’s done in the way that has the least impact, and that it’s necessary,” says Dr. Thomas Barker, 30-year Aptos resident and founding member of Neighbors Organized to Protect Our Community (NOPOC) .

With an aging power infrastructure in many portions of the county, the project, at first, appeared unquestionably necessary to Barker and other county residents when they received letters from PG&E at the end of 2012 alerting them of the plan. But when he and his neighbors started to dig deeper into the project’s details, the plan seemed more dubious than they first realized.

“It was about August of 2013 when one of my neighbors walked up my driveway and said ‘Do you know what they’re doing?’ and then I got wind of it,” says Barker. “The scope of the project was somewhat hidden, and PG&E wasn’t really trying too hard to inform us.”

In the months following, Barker and other neighbors, like software architect and Aptos resident Marco Romanini, gathered further community support and formed the nonprofit NOPOC. While studying the project, and the steps taken by PG&E to have it swiftly approved by the CPUC, NOPOC found that PG&E’s initial assessment stated that the project would have little to no negative impact on the surrounding environment—but a full environmental impact report (EIR), was never conducted for the project. Under the California Environmental Quality Act, an EIR is required for almost all construction projects in California, especially on the scale that PG&E proposed.

“We were able to get about 500 public comments asking for an EIR,” says Romanini. “In January they said ‘yes, we will do the EIR.’”

The need for an EIR on the project was also stressed by local policy makers like Second District County Supervisor Zach Friend. He and the other county supervisors adopted a resolution recommending that the CPUC conduct an EIR for the project.

“I believed, and the board [of supervisors] agreed unanimously, that hundred-foot power poles through a rural area warrants full environmental review,” says Friend.

Although local governments have no regulatory power over the actions of PG&E, they can still express the concerns of their constituents to the CPUC, which holds ultimate power over PG&E and the future of the project, as Friend did in a letter he penned to the commission.

“My goal was simply to say that it’s clear that this is not a popular project with a large segment of the residents there, and one of the only ways to obtain any sort of support is for it to be 100 percent transparent about the need for it, what it’s going to be, and what it’s not going to be. At this point, a large segment of the population in and around that area do not feel that they’ve had those questions answered, and I think that onus is on PG&E to provide answers,” Friend says.

NOPOC’s primary question for PG&E regarding the project: why is it necessary?

PG&E, who failed to respond to GT’s inquiry as of press time, did furnish NOPOC with a response to their question, via the CPUC. The utility company stated that the Santa Cruz 115 Kilovolt Reinforcement Project will increase reliability to the area, decrease the likelihood of possible future outages, and will establish an increased capacity for the growing power demand it anticipates in the area in coming years.

On the surface, PG&E’s response appeared to be valid, but using moneys raised by community members, NOPOC was able to hire a lawyer and an independent power engineer to translate the company’s technical jargon, and found that the response was incomplete.

“One of the things we said is, ‘how do you measure reliability?” If you’re saying that you’re not reliable now, show us.”

PG&E failed to supply NOPOC with a measurable standard of reliability. In regard to the prevention of potential outages, PG&E did give some data about outages in the past 22 years, but did not provide the exact dates of the outages, which made it impossible for NOPOC to determine whether outages have been a consistent or sporadic problem.

Placing the high voltage lines into the ground in anticipation of the growing power needs of the area also seemed like a sound argument until those at NOPOC discovered that the CPUC’s own data, which can be found on its website, actually shows a decrease in power consumption in the county in recent years. In 2006, Santa Cruz County used approximately 1,410 million kilowatt hours of electricity, and about 1,259 in 2012, which is the most recent data available to the public.

Barker and Romanini feel that with the increasing use of alternative power sources like solar energy and more efficient appliances, demand for power will continue to decrease in the future, which makes them further question the motives of PG&E. But without clear, data-driven responses, they can only speculate on the utility company’s intentions.

“When we as a community, as a state, hand this giant, for-profit corporation this opportunity, then they should be required to act in our interest,” says Barker. “It should be all about the citizens of California and the users of PG&E. I hope that’s the case, but I’m not convinced.”

Right now, NOPOC, the CPUC and PG&E are all waiting for the draft EIR, which is being handled by consulting firm Panorama Environmental, and currently slated for release in November. The draft EIR will then be open to public comment for 45 days. Once the public comments and EIR are considered by the CPUC, a final EIR will be drafted and the CPUC ruling on the project—whether to move forward or step back and look at alternatives—is planned for spring 2015. Barker and Romanini hope that the EIR will finally give them the answers they’ve been asking for.

“Once we understand the need, and it’s clear, and we understand the problem, then let’s find the best solution, not just a solution that may have huge impacts,” says Romanini.


PHOTO: Aptos resident Marco Romanini helped challenge a large-scale construction project PG&E was attempting to push through without conducting a full environmental impact report. CHIP SCHEUER

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