Locals vs. BPA: Giant fight over giant power line

"It's hard to imagine such a beautiful place and having it transformed like that"

The federal agency that makes sure we all have electricity says the power system's capacity is dwindling, and soon it won't be able to handle all the demand. (KOIN)

UPDATE: After first promising to release the Environmental Impact Statement this month, the head of the Bonneville Power Administration told KOIN 6 News Thursday it will likely be in the “tail end of January”.  Administrator Elliot Manzier said BPA staff want to make sure the documents are as “crystal clear as possible.” Manzier said his final decision, based on the EIS, on whether to build the power line, will likely be at the end of next year. His project manager had told KOIN 6 Manzier would likely make his decision in late summer.

“We want to make sure that we are being as intelligent and dynamic as we possibly can in terms of the solution to the problem, so we’re going to take a little bit more time to make sure we’ve got the right answer,” said Manzier. “The lights going out is not an alternative. But there are a variety of ways to solve that problem. So far, we haven’t found an alternative way or another option to keep the lights on short of building another transmission line, but we’re going to keep looking.”

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Some of the most beautiful parts of the Northwest could be scarred forever if the Bonneville Power Administration follows through on one of its options.

The federal agency that makes sure we all have electricity says the power system’s capacity is dwindling, and soon it won’t be able to handle all the demand. The BPA says we will need a brand new, giant power line. But if it’s built, some people will pay a heavy price.

The controversial project is the first high voltage power line on the west side of the Cascades in 40 years. The proposed route runs 80 miles from Castle Rock across the Columbia and into Troutdale, right past Ray Richards’ home along the banks of the east fork of the Lewis River in Clark County.

The federal agency that makes sure we all have electricity says the power system's capacity is dwindling, and soon it won't be able to handle all the demand. (KOIN)
The federal agency that makes sure we all have electricity says the power system’s capacity is dwindling, and soon it won’t be able to handle all the demand. (KOIN)

Large towers would be built on each bank so energized wires can span the river.

It’s a rural area, but it’s also right next to the cabin that’s been in Richards’ family since the 1960’s.

“About 200 feet, 240 feet [away from the cabin],” Richards said.

He’s the chairman of the group A Better Way for BPA and has been fighting the plan for 7 years. Landowners like Richards want to know why the BPA doesn’t use the existing path through Vancouver.

“Much of that right of way has never been cleared, so there would still be the impact of clearing trees and so on,” project manager Mark Korsness said. “One of the main reasons we didn’t pick the western alternative was the impact to homes and people. The western alternative has about 3,000 homes within 500 feet of the proposed line. The central alternative only comes within 500 feet of about 300 homes.”

Korsness also said there needs to be distance between the old and new lines to protect the system from natural or man-made disasters.

— Interactive map of where the powerline is likely to be put. Landowners can zoom into their property —

Construction should already be underway on the new line, but because so many people objected, the project underwent further review. Cheryl Brantley, one of the founding members of A Better Way for BPA, says it’s brought people and their property into limbo.

“I’ve talked to widows who have lost their husbands during this project, and they don’t know what to do,” Brantley said. “They can’t sell their home because the project is looming over their heads.”

The federal agency that makes sure we all have electricity says the power system's capacity is dwindling, and soon it won't be able to handle all the demand. (KOIN)
The federal agency that makes sure we all have electricity says the power system’s capacity is dwindling, and soon it won’t be able to handle all the demand. (KOIN)

The BPA originally predicted the new line would be needed by next year because the existing transmission system’s capacity would likely be reached. But now, the BPA’s own documents show a lower forecasted load growth, which means there is less urgency.

The line will now be needed by spring of 2021.

“It highlights the dynamic nature of the system,” Korsness said. “Generators come and go with recessions. Industry ramps up or ramps down, so we don’t do one study and determine the need for a project and then go away and ignore the system. Every year we revisit that.”

BPA opponents, like Richards and Brantley, think the driving force behind the power line is coming from beyond our borders. California just announced it will require 50% of its electricity to come from green energy sources by 2030. Richards thinks that means green electricity from Canada carried on the new line.

“We get the burden and none of the benefit,” he said.

But Korsness says that’s not true.

“The main reason we’re proposing this is to keep the lights on for the people in this region [locally],” he said.

The price of the new line increases with every year that goes by. In 2012, BPA said the project would cost $459 million. Now, the project will cost more than $700 million. That’s an increase of more than 50%, which will be paid by ratepayers on their electricity bills.

There is still a possibility the line won’t be built, but that seems unlikely. According to BPA studies, without a new line we could experience brownouts or blackouts in our area.

The BPA is scheduled to release its environmental impact study in December or January. The head of the BPA will study the report before making a final decision on where and when to build. That decision will likely come in late summer.

Richards says he’s prepared for the uphill battle.

“Yeah, I’d say it’s uphill, but there are some encouraging signs,” he said.

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