Holy Cross Energy says local wildfires highlight need for electric line redundancy
EAGLE — A few weeks ago, eastern Eagle County residents were given a dire warning.
With the Red Canyon II Fire sweeping through the area north of Wolcott, they were told to prepare themselves for a significant power outage — one that could last for hours or even days.
Luckily, the fire didn’t down the vulnerable transmission line — this time. But Holy Cross Energy wants to make sure there isn’t a next time for this scenario.
This fall, the electric cooperative plans to launch a National Environmental Protection Act process through the U.S. Forest Service for a new Gilman to Avon 115kv transmission line. The new line would provide redundancy in its system to minimize transmission system risk in the Eagle River Valley related to wildfires, equipment failure or even sabotage or terrorism.
“As we have seen this summer, wildfires do exist,” said Jenna Weatherred, Holy Cross Energy vice president of member and community relations during a Tuesday, July 24, meeting with the Eagle County commissioners. “We are trying to avoid the long outages that present risks to public health and safety.”
The Eagle River Valley isn’t the only real-world example the company has experienced this summer.
“At the Lake Christine fire, out of the four lines we had serving the Roaring Fork Valley, three of them went down,” Weatherred said.
David Bleakley, Holy Cross Energy engineer, explained the problem of transmission line vulnerability is related to right-of-way issues.
“It’s a tough thing to get transmission lines on private property,” Bleakley said.
As a result, utilities place transmission lines where they have successfully negotiated the right-of-way. That means lines are not spread out and they are less obtrusive.
“That is great from a land-use perspective, but it does put all your eggs in one basket,” Bleakley said. “This proposal gives us another basket.”
The idea of having a more secure transmission line system — especially in light of this summer’s outage warning — has general public support. But while the line would benefit most of the residents of eastern Eagle County, there is one notable exception.
The residents of Minturn aren’t part of the Holy Cross cooperative. They are on an independent power service offered through Xcel Energy. While they will not benefit from the new transmission line, the residents of the town will be the most impacted by it. The proposal from Holy Cross Energy locates the new 115kv line right through the middle of Minturn.
As Holy Cross launched the NEPA process, the company was instructed to find an alternative for the transmission line that has the least possible impact on the national forest. The Minturn route resulted from that directive.
Weatherred noted the company is aware that the proposal would be disruptive to the community, and Holy Cross has offered to bury the line through the core of town. But burying the line for a longer distance would carry a hefty cost.
The company representatives noted the estimated price for the transmission line project is $20 million, with just more than 1 mile of the 9 mile line buried. Going underground is roughly eight times more costly than overhead line, they noted.
Larger community issue
“We agree with and understand the redundancy need,” Minturn Town Manager Michelle Metteer said. “But we feel like we are bearing the weight of having this line going through Minturn.”
She suggested that since the transmission line will benefit a wide swath of Eagle County, it is actually a bigger community issue.
“There is not a great way to do this. It is ugly and it is costly,” Minturn Mayor Matt Scherr said.
Along with the NEPA process, the Minturn representatives noted that the project will have to go through town and county approval process. Through these various hearings, they hope to hone in on the most practical and least impactful route for the line.
Kara Heide, of the Edwards Metropolitan District, supported the idea that the transmission line effort should be a countywide discussion. “Neighbors help neighbors, and we all will benefit from it,” she said.
Other audience members advocated for buried lines, noting they are not only less intrusive but they are protected from fire.
Weatherred agreed that burying the line would be ideal, but reiterated that it would carry a huge cost.
“This project is really about securing the power into this valley,” Bleakley said. “It’s about risk and how much risk we can tolerate.”
Commissioner Jill Ryan noted the key word is risk, not just inconvenience. When the power goes down, vital community services are affected, she said.
“Lives are really impacted. It (electric service) is something that is really easy to take for granted,” Ryan said. “It’s a great plan to have redundancy.”