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Some Sonoita residents fight a power line—and lingering suspicions

Sonoita's gentle hills stretch across the horizon like a rumpled green quilt, dipping into little draws and rising onto furrowed ridges. It is the kind of backdrop that can inspire grand notions.

And a few dark ones as well.

Consider the Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative. In 2008, the Willcox-based organization put in motion its long-lingering plans to string a new, 23-mile, 69kV power line right across those bucolic hills, puncturing the vistas with poles reaching up at least 55 feet. To many folks living here, that's an eyesore—one that vastly outstrips their electricity needs for years to come.

All of this raised a few suspicions—and those disquieting hunches aren't exactly doused by the fact that a mining company hopes to dig in the nearby mountains, and will need plenty of power to do it.

This discord has made for lively conversation on the breezy veranda of Gail and Steve Getzwiller, as we look out upon the very hills where the power poles will rise. In fact, one pole already has.

Steve Getzwiller points to a Border Patrol truck topping a far-off ridge. Behind the white and green truck, a newly planted power pole reaches for the sky. Soon, a line of them will march down the hill past the Getzwiller home. A pastoral vision it is not. "What they've done here is put in the maximum infrastructure that they can hang a 69kV line on," he says. "That way, it's heavy enough that they can double- and triple-circuit it."

"It's not meant for us," says Gail Getzwiller. "We only need 2,000 more megawatts by the year 2029. And we almost have enough renewable energy installed around here to meet that."

Like many of their neighbors, the Getzwillers believe that Sulphur Springs Electric has ulterior motives—namely, servicing the Hardshell silver and copper mine, proposed for the hills near Patagonia. "I think they will be partnering up with TEP to supply this mine," says Steve.

Tucson Electric Power spokesman Joe Salkowski declined to comment to the Tucson Weekly on the Hardshell project, or whether TEP had been in discussions with Sulphur Springs Electric.

Jack Blair, chief member services officer for Sulphur Springs, dismisses the idea that his company has any interest in serving the proposed mine. "That keeps coming up," he says. "The bottom line is, for electricity in this state, we all have certificated territories that we serve—so that is actually not in our service territory. I believe it's in UniSource territory."

UniSource Energy is the parent company of TEP.

The Hardshell project belongs to Wildcat Silver, a Canadian-based corporation affiliated with Augusta Resource. Augusta is the company hoping to dig an open-pit copper mine in the Rosemont Valley south of Tucson.

Although both firms share the same Vancouver address, Wildcat CEO Chris Jones hastily plays down the connection. "At best, we're cousins under the sun," he says.

Jones also scoffs at the notion that Wildcat Silver has been in secret negotiations with Sulphur Springs Electric. "In order for us to connect to a power line, we would have to have the mine designed, and we don't," he says. "We don't know how much power we're going to need. Secondly, that particular cooperative does not service our area. Until you know how much power you're going to need, you don't even have the conversation."

But as it happens, Sulphur Springs is not completely off the radar: in February, the mining consulting firm Pincock Allen and Holt released a progress report on the Hardshell project. Commissioned by Wildcat Silver, the assessment detailed utilities and other services available in the area of the proposed mine. "Higher capacity power lines traverse the Sonoita Creek Valley," said the report, including "Sulfur (sic) Springs Valley Electric Co-op ... ."

Potential investors, reading that report, could be forgiven for thinking a connection with Sulphur Springs Electric is a distinct possibility.

Meanwhile, Blair argues that independent engineers, as well as the Arizona Corporation Commission, found the 69kV upgrade a "feasible" solution to frequent power outages plaguing approximately 2,400 customers in the Sonoita-Elgin area. Although the ACC has little jurisdiction over the placement of lines smaller than 115 kV, commissioners did schedule hearings to decide whether the new power lines, at an estimated $13 million cost, were the most frugal path toward reliability. This summer, they allowed the project to proceed.

According to Blair, the majority of residents polled by his company support the project, which would leave the current line as an emergency backup. "There are two issues," he says. "There is capacity, and the current line we have in now is pretty much at capacity. The other issue is reliability. And that's why we would need the second line to come in there."

Others find that explanation a touch specious. Among them is Marshall Magruder, a veteran of numerous scraps between utility companies and their customers. Magruder says new power lines subvert the hopes of Sonoita-area residents who want alternative energy.

Like the Getzwillers, he says that all that extra wattage isn't needed. "The people who live in Sonoita, Elgin and Patagonia don't want to use the (new) line. They want to put in renewable energy, and use energy efficiency to reduce their power so they don't need this new line. And they're convinced they could do it."

He says the area's power supply needs to jump to nine megawatts, up from the current seven. But residents have already been closing that gap, by installing nearly a megawatt's worth of solar energy. Other simple remedies, such as $1,800 electric heaters, would get them even closer—for a lot less than $13 million.

"You'd need 100 of the heaters," Magruder says. "For just $180,000, you'd get rid of the capacity problem."

So why would Sulphur Springs Electric object? "Well, the Hardshell mine is supposed to get power in the next two years," says Magruder. "This gets the line closer to the mine. It's technically not in Sulphur Springs territory, but they can get a cross-boundary arrangement to go into UniSource territory."

Magruder says that Wildcat Silver's Chris Jones "talked to one of our people, and he said, 'I have a letter from Sulphur Springs, and they're going to talk to me in mid-July about furnishing power.' ... We think it's all from that 69kV line."

Jones denies any discussions with Sulphur Springs Electric.

Gail Getzwiller says the fight with Sulphur Springs has become personal. "What I think," she says, "is that they want to ruin as much of our scenic view as they possibly can."

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