SAN MIGUEL COUNTY – The end is near – the end of the Telluride region’s vulnerability to extended power outages, that is.
The San Miguel County Commissioners last week approved a settlement agreement that essentially ends a decade-long dispute over the upgrade of an aging, 69kV power line that transmits power from the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s Nucla power station to Telluride, clearing the way for construction to begin on the project as early as this June.
“It was a long time coming,” said Tri-State Communications Manager Jim Van Someren. “It’s gratifying that all parties could find common ground.”
Tri-State, the region’s wholesale power supplier, and the San Miguel Power Association, the local electric power distributor, in 1998 proposed the transmission line upgrade as a way of providing redundant power to the Telluride region, whose primary source of power is via a 115kV line that runs from Hesperus over Ophir Pass.
That line is highly vulnerable to avalanches and other geo-hazards, and when it goes down the existing backup line from Nucla cannot meet the regional demand for power, forcing rolling blackouts.
Additionally, if a slide were to take out the Hesperus line in the middle of the winter, repair might not be possible until spring, resulting in an extended outage. The region experienced such an emergency in 2004, although in that instance repairs were possible within a week.
Beyond addressing the vulnerability of the Hesperus line, the upgrade will also deal with the aging Nucla line. Built in 1948, it is at the end of its useful life.
“We worked hard to get the settlement; it’s not perfect but at least gets us where we need to be,” said BOCC Chair Art Goodtimes, expressing strong sentiments about the economic impact of an extended power outage or rolling blackouts on the region.
“That would be a disaster for our resort,” he said.
During the same meeting the BOCC also amended Tri-State’s special use permit to allow for the construction of an enlarged substation on Wilson Mesa.
SMPA General Manger Kevin Ritter described the approval as “essential” to accomplishing the new transmission line.
“We’ve accomplished a lot in the past two years, with all parties sitting down at the table and working to find a solution. That solution required some changes to Tri-State’s permit, and we thank the county commissioners for approving those changes and helping us move this project forward,” he said in a statement provided to The Watch.
In a sharply contested decision in March 2002, SMC Commissioners Goodtimes and Elaine Fischer voted to approve the proposed upgrade, but stipulated it must be built underground in scenic areas, at Tri-State’s expense. Vern Ebert, who also sat on the BOCC at that time, dissented in that decision.
Tri-State appealed the decision to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, neighbors whose land was at issue intervened, and the entire question of who should pay to underground the transmission line was tied up in litigation for years, until last week.
“It protects some of the most gorgeous landscapes in Colorado, so I think everybody is thrilled about that outcome,” said Rob Roberts, representative for the Coalition of Concerned San Miguel County Homeowners, a group of affected neighbors.
Noting that transmission lines are not usually placed underground in rural areas, “I think it’s a testimony to how much the county, the towns and the people in the area care about these open spaces and these incredible landscapes,” he continued.
The total cost of the upgraded 51-mile power line is estimated at $56.6 million. Ten of those miles will be constructed underground to protect wide open vistas on Wilson and Specie Mesas at an estimated cost of $19.4 million, Tri-State’s Van Someren confirmed.
Tri-State has agreed to pay $7.5 million of those undergrounding costs, or about 39 percent, while Coalition members have agreed to contribute $1.2 million plus half the interest being earned on the money, which has already been placed in an escrow account.
SMPA’s power-purchasing consumers in Telluride, Mountain Village, Ophir, Sawpit and eastern portions of San Miguel County from the top of Lizard Head Pass through the Trout Lake/San Bernardo area, the Telluride region and down valley through Placerville to Specie Creek Bridge, Illium Valley and Specie, Wilson and Sunshine Mesas (including Coalition members), will pay the balance in the form of a monthly surcharge of just under 7.5 percent on their total bill calculated before franchise fees and taxes.
The initial surcharge has been calculated to pay off the loan over 30 years based on estimated construction costs. However, when construction is complete and actual costs are known, the surcharge will be recalculated, according to SMPA spokesperson Becky Mashburn.
“We will not assess that surcharge unless we are pretty certain this project is moving forward,” she said, adding that if SMPA begins collecting the money and the project doesn’t happen, “We will return that money to our members’ pockets.”
All of the overhead transmission lines will be built at Tri-State’s expense.
If anyone has walked away from the bargaining table dissatisfied it may be members of the Wilson Mesa Ranch Homeowners Association, who are a part of the larger Coalition and have ended up with a larger substation out of the deal.
The BOCC approved the larger substation based upon Tri-State’s willingness to work with the landowners to develop and implement a mitigation plan to reduce the visual impact of the substation, according to Goodtimes.
“Tri-State seemed very willing, they’re very motivated to get this done,” he said.
Although there are still some signatures and rights-of-way to be obtained, according to Van Someren construction should take the better part of three June-October building seasons and finish in 2012 if all goes according to plan.