Attendees Question Need for New Powerline into the Village. On Sept. 27, 2023, an educational forum sponsored by Big Park Council attracted some 30 local residents to discuss the proposed powerline project by Arizona Public Service, which is currently pending approval by the U.S. Forest Service. The meeting was held at the VOC Church of the Nazarene.
APS in 2019 proposed building a roughly 14-mile high-voltage, above-ground transmission line between McGuireville and the Village of Oak Creek substations as a way to restore power in the event of outages and to increase load capability across the grid in the Verde Valley area. Last year Coconino National Forest officials – who are responsible for granting the permit – indicated they were considering a ‘blended solution’ of partial burial with the majority of the powerline above-ground, including in the Village.
In its presentation on Sept. 27, a special subcommittee tasked by BPC with monitoring the project has questioned APS outage data justifying the project and also APS’s estimated costs if the line were to be buried. Local residents attending the meeting – many of whom have lived in the VOC for years – had difficulty recalling any major outages. According to the Forest Service’s analysis of the purpose for the project – published in the form of a draft Environmental Assessment – APS “is generally required to follow a principle of a ‘continuity of service’ and would face scrutiny from the [Arizona Corporation Commission], including providing outage information and potentially performing studies and efforts to improve reliability.”
But that’s the problem, according to BPC’s volunteers, who said there is little evidence of frequent or sustained outages in the Village. Moreover, after years of requesting specific outage data by the BPC, APS has always declined, stating the data is proprietary. Like most utilities overseen by a state regulator, APS has a protected territory and BPC has questioned why the outage data is proprietary. According to APS, VOC customers experience, on average, one sustained power outage each year of four hours, seven ‘momentary’ outages, and 150-160 hours of rotating power outages, or brown outs, during peak summer power demand. In addition, APS has told BPC that over the last 10 years the Village has experienced a total of 16 outages ranging from two minutes to 68 hours.
In response, BPC surveyed local APS customers who have access through their own customer accounts to check on outages for the last three years. Instead of one major power outage of four hours a year, BPC’s survey of 110 residents – respondents were spread evenly across the community – resulted in two events every three years averaging 38 minutes each, and no record of any rotating outages.
Many of the attendees at the BPC meeting said they could not recall many outages at all, in particular, the one cited by APS of 68 hours.
In addition, BPC presenters noted that while the draft EA estimated that the cost of burying the powerline is around $7.45 million per mile, another utility in California, Pacific Gas & Electric, has experienced actual ‘undergrounding’ costs of $4 million a mile, with more recent costs of $3.3 million and expected to be lower in the future. In other words, the cost of burying at least key sections of the line may be inflated by APS and less than half the estimated cost provided to the Forest Service.
BPC President John Wichert thanked Pastor Jim Cunningham for hosting the forum and attendees for their interest. BPC anticipates Coconino National Forest will release a draft final decision in early January. At that time, BPC will have 45 days to file an appeal to the regional forester in Albuquerque if it disagrees with CNF’s preliminary decision.
APS Transmission Line Subcommittee
The APS Subcommittee is an ad hoc, meaning temporary, subcommittee of the Council’s Planning & Zoning Committee. Its purpose is to represent the Council, in an advocacy role, on matters related to Arizona Public Service’s proposed 13-mile high-voltage transmission line between McGuireville and the Village of Oak Creek’s substation at the southeast corner of Highway 179 and Jacks Canyon Road.
In 2019 APS submitted the proposal to the U.S. Forest Service since most of the 13.7-mile powerline route would cross Coconino National Forest (CNF). APS has stated that the power line is needed as a backup to the single line that provides electrical power to the VOC out of West Sedona. APS says the new line would create a loop between McGuireville and VOC, allowing for quick restoration of power during an outage, also adding greater capacity for growth in the area.
APS has proposed an above-ground route utilizing 65-foot-high steel, self-weathering poles that would eventually take on a rust-colored look designed to blend in more with the red rock scenery in the area. [Figure 1] Depending on terrain, the current wooden poles carrying three power lines from West Sedona vary in height and are about 45-50 feet high.
Figure 1 – Source: USFS Draft Environmental Assessment.
The two lines would merge just south of the VOC near the gap between two prominent mesas, with the new steel poles replacing the wooden poles and carrying a total of six lines. [Figure 2]. According to CNF’s most recent plans, the combined power line would then be buried underneath Highway 179 before the remaining half-mile or so would be above-ground as it follows the existing power line route to the VOC substation.
Figure 2 – BPC photo simulation of the proposed route of the APS Transmission line of 65ft high self-weathering steel poles.
Shortly after CNF invited public comments on the proposal in January 2020, the Council’s subcommittee responded with brief comments expressing concerns and suggesting extensive underground burial.
In May 2021 the Council approved the following position:
The Big Park Regional Coordinating Council supports an underground powerline from the intersection of Cornville Road and Beaverhead Flat Road into the Village of Oak Creek to the Oak Creek substation (as indicated on Exhibit A), while permitting above-ground construction on the other side of Cornville Road.
Further, as an alternative to partial burial of the new powerline, the Council supports studying the feasibility of a microgrid community containing a solar-generated source of energy and relying, as needed, on conventional power from APS.
In December CNF released for public comment a 120-page draft Environmental Assessment (EA) detailing the project and offering several alternatives: 1) no action, meaning CNF would not issue a special use permit for the project; 2) approve an all above-ground power line; or 3) an all-buried powerline.
Consistent with the Council’s position, the APS subcommittee drafted and submitted on behalf of the Council a detailed 29-page comment letter in January 2022 opposing an above-ground line.
BPC Major Concerns
Among the many concerns expressed in the VOC comments were:
- Increased wildfire threats with a new, above-ground power line
- Degradation of sightseeing and recreational opportunities
- This includes key viewshed corridors along the federally designated Red Rock Scenic Byway through the VOC (Highway 179); and
- Hiking and equestrian activities along Kel Fox Trail
- Reduced property values for homeowners near the project
In an August 2022 meeting with interested parties, CNF released a modified project route that included burial of segments of the power line along Cornville and Beaverhead Flat roads, but rerouted Kel Fox Trail so that much of the remainder of the power line route would be above ground [Figure 3].
Figure 3 – Source: CNF map from the draft EA showing the proposed rerouting of Kel Fox Trail (in yellow) at the southern side of the VOC. The blue line shows the above-ground route of the new power line (except for a short section where it would be buried beneath Hwy. 179 in the upper portion of the photo).
In addition, the new power line would be above-ground in two sections along Beaverhead Flat Road, at the intersection with Cornville Road and for another half-mile east, and then above-ground again about a mile west of the intersection with Hwy. 179.[Figure 4]
Figure 4 – Source: CNF photo simulation of the powerline looking east on Beaverhead Flat Road as it descends into Dry Beaver Creek valley.
In January 2023, the USFS appointed a new Supervisor, Aaron Mayville, to manage the 1.8 million acre Coconino National Forest. In February representatives of Big Park Council met for an hour with Supervisor Mayville to discuss the concerns outlined in its 2022 comment letter. In addition, the Council suggested CNF consider rerouting the power line away from Kel Fox Trail and burying it along Beaverhead Flat Road to the intersection with Hwy. 179, and then continue burial all the way north to the substation at Jacks Canyon Road.
CNF has indicated that it will make a final draft decision on the APS project by early January 2024, which would allow interested parties like the Council to appeal to the regional forester in Albuquerque prior to start of construction. If the Council or other interested parties appeal, then the regional forester would relay its review and final decision to Coconino National Forest, with any modifications, by early April 2024. CNF would then publish its final decision a week or two later.
The APS Transmission Line Subcommittee plans to continue closely monitoring the project and reporting back to the Council as needed.
At this stage in the process, once CNF issues its draft decision (expected around Jan. 4, 2024), the subcommittee will follow the Council’s bylaw procedures by making a recommendation to the Planning & Zoning Committee on whether to appeal. P&Z in turn will make a recommendation to the full Council. Since interested parties will have a 45-day period to submit appeals to the regional forester, the Council’s internal review process will be expedited as needed.
Sept. 6, 2023 – We are happy to report that our Big Park Council fundraising effort reached its goal of $10,000, thanks to the many generous donors to this campaign including the very generous matching gift from the Sedona Village Partnership! We are working with environmental attorneys to explore legal options.
For additional information please contact the Council at firstname.lastname@example.org.