Power Replay

By pushing a "new" proposal, TEP proves it's never too late to start over

It's been nearly a decade since Tucson Electric Power rolled out the bright idea of stringing a huge, 345-kilovolt transmission line down through the Coronado National Forest into Nogales, and then on to Mexico.

To the good folks of Santa Cruz Valley, it seems like only yesterday. They haven't forgotten the multitude of hours and dollars spent countering TEP's army of engineers, lawyers and PR hacks, all handsomely paid to argue that anything less than a full-blown international connection was hugely impractical. Company officials scoffed at the idea of simply adding a 138-kilovolt line to the current 115-kilovolt line, thereby giving Nogales all the juice it needs—and is mandated by the Arizona Corporation Commission to receive.

That's why more than a few folks were scratching their heads recently, after TEP announced plans to upgrade that 115-kilovolt line to Nogales to 138 kilovolts. As you might expect, many Santa Cruz Valley residents are a touch disgusted that the company fought them tooth and claw, only to completely reverse itself.

"They wasted a lot of our time and energy, and money as well," says Rich Bohman, president of the Santa Cruz Valley Citizens Council. The volunteer group became an official participant—known as an "intervener"—when TEP applied for the 345-kilovolt route with the Corporation Commission (a project which is now in limbo). Bohman's group also hired a Phoenix attorney to fight one proposed route, which would have directed the massive line along Interstate 19 through Tubac. "We easily spent $40,000 on that," Bohman says.

If Marshall Magruder had been paid for time spent fighting TEP, he could have retired all over again. The Tubac resident became a perpetual thorn in the company's side, arguing against the 345-kilovolt line at Corporation Commission hearings and to anyone else who would listen. (See TQ&A, Feb. 3, 2005.) As it turns out, the former systems engineer knew exactly what he was talking about. Today, Magruder is still keeping close tabs on TEP shenanigans.

While he has no major beef with the latest proposal, he does note a few niggling problems. For instance, power for Santa Cruz County currently comes from the "Nogales Tap" on lines owned by the Western Area Power Administration. Though WAPA charges a fee for this northern connection, the proposed link will run on TEP lines—at a higher cost. "They'll have to put a couple of miles of new transmission lines in to do that," he says, "and it means we'll pay a different rate. It will be about $2.50 more per month, per customer. And that's forever."

Nor would the latest TEP proposal have more than one line serving Nogales. That could leave the city vulnerable to blackouts—a key reason behind the Corporation Commission-ordered upgrade in the first place. (See Dave Devine's article on Page 13.) The new TEP proposal "doesn't do any improvement in reliability," Magruder says, "except that they're going to replace some of the existing wood poles with steel poles."

He also takes issue with the number of steel replacements needed. Magruder says there's a formula for when such poles need to be replaced, and that TEP might be racking up unneeded expenses. "Is it cost-effective? That's how I'm looking at it. They say they'll have less (power) failures with the steel poles. So then I asked them for their failure rate, and they said it's not relevant."

TEP estimated the cost for upgrade at between $24 million and $47 million, Magruder says. "But I'd like it a little closer. That's a big spread."

Although the new proposal lacks TEP's earlier intention of rifling through the Coronado National Forest, that doesn't mean nature gets off scot-free, either. Marty Jakle can tell you about that. The former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist lives in Rio Rico, where the company wants to reroute its existing line. That would move it from one part of Jakle's property, where it is today, to another that's rich with wildlife.

"They told me they would want to remove all the vegetation there within a 100-foot easement," he says. "It's an old-growth mesquite bosque with hackberry, elderberry, cat's claw and shrubs." It's also home to the yellow-billed cuckoo, which is currently a candidate for the endangered species list.

If Jakle doesn't sign on to the shift, the company could muscle away the habitat through condemnation. That would make a mockery of the power-line-location process, which he says is supposed to make sensitive species a top consideration. "I worked on environmental plans all of my professional career. If had a case like this, it would be such a no-brainer, because they have that lower-quality habitat on my property already cleared."

Still, the political habitat seems to favor TEP this time around. Unlike before, when it voted to oppose the 345-kilovolt line, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors seems to be onboard with this latest proposal—although those sentiments aren't yet official. "TEP needs to do what it needs to do to make sure that we have the power available for our community," says District 1 Supervisor Manny Ruiz. "It will be interesting to see what happens. But as far as a board, we haven't taken a position."

Others have shifted their position from low-key opposition to borderline apathy. Among them is Hugh Holub, a longtime Santa Cruz County player who served as a city attorney for Nogales in the late-1990s. During the wrangling over the 345-kilovolt line, he was among a group calling itself Maestros, which proposed building a power plant in Nogales as an alternative.

When it comes to Santa Cruz County, says Holub, the utility company seems to lose its bearings. "They've taken the long way to get back to where they should have been in the first place. They went off on a tangent there for a long time that wasn't really doing us any good down in this end of the world."

Holub calls it a colossal waste of time—particularly since TEP's goal of tapping into Mexico's power grid was a pipe dream. He learned that fact while working with the Maestros.

"We proposed putting our power plant right on the border," he says. "Well, one of the things we found out was that the Mexican government made it really, really clear that they weren't buying power on any long-term contract from any source in the United States. And that came from really high up in the Mexican government. In fact the then-secretary of energy who made that ruling is now the president of the country."