by Carol Dunn
LA VETA- At a public forum held Tuesday night at the La Veta Community Center, Smart Valley Energy (SVE), a transmission line coalition, presented a summary of its efforts in researching viable alternatives to a proposed 95-mile power transmission line from Alamosa to Walsenburg. The transmission line would involve a 150-foot wide clear-cut easement and hundreds of 180-foot tall metal towers. Although Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation say they need the line to increase energy reliability, the coalition contends the plans to achieve that are wrong for southern Colorado.
Deb Lathrop, one of the forum organizers, told the audience that the decision to build a transmission line has not been made yet, and she was disappointed that an earlier plan described a northern route versus a southern route. “We were being pitted neighbor against neighbor as if it were a done deal, which it is not,” she said. “Our buildings and other property owners’ homes weren’t even on the maps.” Al Tucker, president of the Majors Ranch Property Owners Association, told the audience, “They will use eminent domain to access our properties. We need to organize to show the P.U.C. that we have rights.”
Cody Wertz and Matt Douglas, both employees of Louis Bacon’s Trinchera Ranch and “official interveners” in the utilities’ efforts to get approval for the transmission line plans, were on hand to field questions about the alternatives. Trinchera is but one property in the way of the proposed transmission line – granted it is 172,000 acres in size, about half in a conservation easement with the remaining portion used as a hunting ranch. Numerous small acreage landowners would also be impacted by the project, and SVE is trying to mobilize them and others in the La Veta Valley to speak as a unified voice in opposing the project. “We can protect the pristine corridor and still have alternative energy,” said Wertz.
SVE hired an energy transmission expert and conducted its own study on alternatives to the 95-mile line, a study they said should have been done by the utilities. “They have not looked adequately at all the alternatives,” said Douglas. “Years ago they made this decision and never looked back.” Douglas explained that the original plan was to build the project in a straight line from Alamosa to Walsenburg, not taking into account the problematic geography. The workable but more circuitous route adds 25 miles to the project, at a cost of about a million dollars a mile.
One alternative SVE has proposed, a “northern option,” involves using the existing transmission system that runs north from Alamosa to the Poncha substation. SVE literature says that this option would save $50 million, solves the reliability issue, exports all the currently planned renewable energy, preserves Valley resources, and avoids overbuilding by using a phased approach. Douglas said utilities do not like to use transmission lines owned by other companies because, “It costs them money.” He said, “Yes, a northern option would work.” He said the existing system has the capacity to carry all of what’s currently planned in solar energy output from the San Luis Valley.
SVE does not take issue with the proposed connection between the Calumet and Comanche substations, and this line could transmit wind energy. Both gentlemen commented on a potential energy bottleneck if solar and wind power are both funneled through Walsenburg. Wertz explained that if both were to transmit from Walsenburg, the bottleneck would require one of them to shut down.
In response to a question from the audience about why the highway 160 corridor is the focus of the plan, both offered their personal opinions. Apparently public utilities can recoup a large amount of the money invested into building transmission lines, in this case $90 million. In addition to that, there would be a 10 percent rate of return on the construction, in the form of eventual rate increases. Finally, the line would be wholly owned, and no rental would need to be paid to use someone else’s transmission lines.
If you want to learn more about SVE or the proposed energy transmission line, see their web site: smartvalleyenergy.com.