New APS powerline would increase wildfire risk in the VOC

Here's a view of Big Park looking south to the saddle between two mesas. The red arrow shows the approximate route of Kel Fox Trail and the proposed power line into VOC.

Here's a view of Big Park looking south to the saddle between two mesas. The red arrow shows the approximate route of Kel Fox Trail and the proposed power line into VOC.

As John Wichert highlights in his column this month, “Preserve Village Views and Mitigate Wildfire Risk,” Arizona Public Service is planning to build a 69,000-volt transmission line between McGuireville and the Village of Oak Creek as a backup in the event of electrical outages. Construction could begin as early as next spring. However, APS needs a special use permit from the Forest Service before it can turn over a spade of dirt.

Big Park Council, a nonprofit that represents 23 HOAs and other businesses in the community, is opposed to APS’s standard solution of building above-ground powerlines across the scenic landscape between the two communities. We aren’t opposed to a backup source of electricity. We would just like to bury unsightly powerlines in this unique and heavily tourist-oriented destination.

Big Park Council is now soliciting donations from our residents to research the feasibility of a court injunction in the event the Forest Service allows extensive above-ground construction.

I am making a donation to Big Park Council’s research effort, and I hope you will consider making one, too. Let me offer just one example of why it’s hard to take APS at its word that a new above-ground powerline is urgently needed here.

APS’s parent company, Pinnacle West Capital, is required by federal law to file annual disclosures with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regarding various risks to company operations. In its 2023 10-k, Pinnacle West stated that APS “intends to harden its infrastructure” and to increase “investments in a modern and more flexible electricity grid,” including programs “aimed at reducing wildfires.”

This sounds pretty good. One would assume APS is all-in on various ways to reduce wildfire risk. To our knowledge, not one single wildfire has ever resulted from a buried powerline.

However, in terms of APS’s 5,828 pole miles, as reported in the SEC disclosures, only 85 miles, or 1.4 percent, were buried. This compares to 49 buried pole miles in 2020, or a snail’s pace increase of about nine underground miles a year in the entire APS territory that blankets northern and central Arizona.

As APS explains on its website, burying powerlines is a lot more costly than building above-ground transmission lines. This is accurate. However, that’s where mutual agreement ends.

APS estimates that burying the entire line in our area would cost $97.1 million, or roughly $7 million a mile. One wonders if APS is competent at making estimates given its limited experience with burying powerlines, or perhaps inflating costs to demonstrate why an above-ground line is more cost-efficient (at about $1.3 million per mile). Pacific Gas & Electric, after filing for bankruptcy in 2019 due to liability claims involving wildfires in California, has announced plans to bury some 10,000 miles of powerlines underground at an estimated cost of $1.5-2 million per mile, or at least 3 times lower than APS’s estimated cost.

Finally, when you include operations and maintenance costs over a 25-year period, the total costs of each option here (buried or above-ground) are more competitive. APS does not include O&M. Construction costs, no matter if above or underground, would be borne by all APS customers, not just those in the local area.

If the Forest Service approves the APS project as expected – mostly above-ground – a lawsuit may be the only way to level the playing field in this fight. I look at my contribution to the legal research fund as an investment in my community, not an expense. I hope you’ll join in supporting Big Park Council’s efforts to improve the quality of life in the Village for residents and future generations by taking this next step in due diligence.

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