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Eastside neighbors fight plans for high voltage power lines

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Steel towers more than ten stories tall running through communities from Redmond to Renton: That prospect is why neighborhood groups have formed to challenge Puget Sound Energy’s plan to upgrade its high voltage power lines to meet growing demand.

The name sounds innocent and important: “Energize Eastside.” It’s a plan to construct an 18-mile transmission line with taller towers and 230 kilovolt lines, replacing 115 kilovolt lines that were built in the 1960s. It’s the power lines that bring electricity into the area and spread it out to customers.

“We’ve outgrown our infrastructure and it’s time to upgrade it,” said Gretchen Aliabadi, co-project lead for Puget Sound Energy, the state’s largest electric utility.

Community meetings are underway and PSE has not decided on a preferred route. The utility owns transmission lines on an existing north-south corridor and most of the potential route segments also already have power lines. But Aliabadi understands that there will be new impacts on neighborhoods, such things as views and tree removal.

“There’s no perfect place to put this but all of our customers, they want the lights to go on when they hit that switch,” she said.

The private utility said it looked at another existing high-voltage power line corridor that runs just east of I-405, but it’s owned by Seattle City Light. It’s part of that public utility’s transmission system and “not available for our use,” according to the PSE website.

“The problem PSE is trying to solve would occur once every decade,” declared Todd Anderson, an expert in electrical engineering, who works with two groups opposed to the power line project. He claims the utility is motivated by revenues, not local demand.

“PSE’s big need for doing this project is to be able to have a revenue stream that is going to replace what they’re going to be losing over the next couple of decades,” he said.

Anderson believes utilities are in a death spiral. He argues that new technologies, such as in-home micro co-generation units and wind and solar power will soon reduce demand and cut into utility revenues.

“This project is not needed at all to satisfy local needs,” he said. “It’s all about shipping power to Canada and from Canada, down to California.”

The utility’s Aliabadi rejects that, stating that just 3 to 8 percent of the power that will move through a new system would be sold outside the region, what they call “wheeling power.”

She insists this project is about the growth you can see on the Eastside.

“Not just in taller buildings and bigger homes – but think of the things you plug in that you didn’t use in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s or 90’s. So we plug a lot of things in, we are an electric society. Our demand has grown and we really need to keep up with it and we need to keep up with future growth,” she says.

PSE says the city of Bellevue has validated the increased demand for power, as have independent firms, with all reports posted on the utility’s website.

Aliabadi says the experts have studied 700,000 different power flow analyses.

“Through these studies, they’ve found there is a problem, that the lines and the substations or the transformers that serve 350,000 customers from Renton to Redmond is overloading. It’s redlining and if we don’t add capacity, then we are going to have many more chances to have outages,” declares Aliabadi.

But Anderson accuses the utility of manipulating the studies, claiming the utility has “massive amounts of overcapacity.” He contends that adding grid batteries to the PSE system could solve any future capacity and demand issues, which he claims would be few.

Aliabadi says PSE has studied battery storage, calling it a young technology, “just not there yet” and “too risky” for what the utility needs.

Some critics demand a moratorium on the project, which could cost up to nearly $300 million. But PSE says demand will overtake capacity by 2017.

“Delay is not an option,” said Aliabadi. “I think what we need to do is sit down as a community and solve this problem because it truly is a community issue. Think about what everybody does for a living and none of it starts without power.”

The utility hopes to select a route for the 18-mile transmission line by the end of this year, complete an environmental review and get permits in 2015, and finish construction by 2017.

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