PSE tries again for BI transmission line

If you read Puget Sound Energy’s website, it sounds like a new transmission line on Bainbridge Island is a done deal.

It’s not a “fait accompli,” said BI attorney David Johnson, who opposed similar efforts in the early 1990s and again in 2010.

The public has until 5 p.m. Feb. 12 to comment.

BI customers experience more frequent and longer outages than the average customer, PSE says. Challenges include: Bainbridge transmission lines are heavily exposed to trees, and 64% of outages are caused by trees; and nearly two-thirds of Bainbridge customers are at risk of a prolonged outage because their Winslow and Murden Cove substations are each fed by a single transmission line, referred to as “taps”. PSE wants to build a new transmission line between the two substations so each will be connected to two transmission lines. If one goes out, the other can still provide power.

Johnson said that entire system may not be needed.

“That idea didn’t sell before, and it’s not where the focus should be today,” he says.

He said most of BI’s power issues have to do with the Winslow Tap. PSE is already rebuilding the 4.5 mile Winslow Tap transmission line, the only such line serving the Winslow substation, which supplies power to 3,500 homes and businesses on the south end of Bainbridge Island. The transmission line was built in 1960 and needs to be replaced. Also, the line is in a heavily vegetated corridor with difficult terrain, which makes outage response challenging. Project fieldwork last summer revealed some existing poles and equipment needed to be replaced sooner than anticipated. Starting in September 2020, PSE replaced specific poles and equipment to ensure safety and electric reliability.

Once all that work is done in 2023, then let’s see if the new line is really needed, Johnson said.

Johnson opposed two previous PSE efforts.

In the early 1990s, before the internet, a grassroots group formed called Zero Adverse Power. They wrote letters to the editor in opposition. “It sort of just went away,” Johnson said of that PSE proposal.

In 2010, PSE planned not just a new transmission line, but also a new substation.

Again, the community said, “We don’t want this. Those (substations) aren’t something you really want to have in your back yard,” Johnson said.

Another opposition group, this one called Reliable and Safe Island Electricity, formed and had an active website.

PSE said it listened to the community and decided not to pursue it. Since the number of outages at that time was small, “It was much harder to muster up much enthusiasm” for that effort, Johnson said.

In this latest PSE effort, which it is calling the “missing link,” Johnson said it is skipping a few steps. It hasn’t really explained to the community the history and the need. It is asking folks to go online and use an interactive map to choose which route they would want the transmission line to take.

Johnson said transmission lines are an eyesore.

“This line, if built, will have a permanent impact on the island landscape. Imagine a sea of new 75-foot transmission poles — much taller than distribution poles — that extends for several miles along neighborhood roads. It won’t be a pretty sight,” he said.

Homeowners on the route PSE selects will be hurt the most, he said, adding trees will be cut down on both sides and under the transmission lines, which will impact property values, views and more.

“It’s not the landscape the island needs or deserves,” he said.

Johnson said rebuilding the Winslow Tap line will not be as invasive for residents because it’s already there – in many instances before surrounding homes were even built. Along with new lines and poles, vegetation will be cleared to make sure tree branches don’t fall on lines, which is the cause of most interruptions in power service.

Not as many people object to those improvements.

“It’s right at the core of the problem,” Johnson said, adding from 2013-20 there were 24 outages there, compared with two elsewhere.

“So, PSE, by all means go ahead and finish rebuilding the Tap. This will fix the major source of transmission outages in the quickest, most effective, and least impactful way possible. But please don’t burden the island with an entirely new line that forever mars the landscape. We’ve already given a thumbs down to that idea,” Johnson says.

If the new transmission line does go through, PSE does have the power of condemnation. However, they say they will work with property owners on a fair offer.

“But one person’s fair is often another person’s lowball,” Johnson said.

Cost estimates of each project have not been announced, but it will be shared throughout the PSE system so rates should not increase much. In general, PSE says it costs from $600,000 to $2.9 million per mile for 115 kV, and $3-$4 million per mile for 230 kV. To put it underground, the cost would be $9-$15 million and $20-$28 million, respectively. If BI decided to go with the underground route, its customers would pay the difference.

Johnson admits PSE is doing a better job of outreach now, getting community input, than it had before. But some of the information is misleading.

Such as, it says outages went up in a recent five-year period. “But they’re cherry picking data,” he said, adding their analysis was of the five worst years for outages the island has had. He said since 2016 when PSE rebuilt transmission lines across Agate Pass outages actually have gone down.

Part of the improved public relations effort is the Community Sounding Board, which started last year. The 18-member CSB provides input on routing criteria, route segments and other topics. Members were selected from a pool of applicants and represent a variety of geographic, organizational and individual interests on Bainbridge Island from inside and outside the project study area.

CSB members suggested that the project study area be expanded east to include Ferncliff Avenue Northeast. CSB members also brought attention to critical helipad operations at Fire Station 21.

Public comments may be emailed to or via voicemail at 1-888-878-8632

After Feb. 12, PSE will review feedback and begin developing route options. The CSB will review the options this spring and share feedback with PSE, which will share route options and ask for community feedback this summer. PSE will make a route decision later this year and anticipates having the transmission line loop in-service by 2024.

“That’s incredibly optimistic,” Johnson said. “People are going to come out of the woodwork, tree huggers like me and property owners. It’s going to be a big mess if PSE keeps pushing it.”