Renton Hearing Report

A summary of the Energize Eastside public hearing held in Renton on Jan 8, 2020, By Don Marsh.

Dozens of CENSE supporters wearing orange shirts attended the five-hour hearing in Renton, sitting politely together with dozens of business owners and civic organizations that PSE had recruited to support Energize Eastside.

Opponents questioned the need for the project, the safety of installing huge poles next to 50-year-old pipelines, the impact on the community, the environmental consequences of removing hundreds of trees, and the lack of recognition of feasible alternatives.

The business community was concerned with the effects of rapid growth on the Eastside, and how devastating rolling blackouts would be for the Eastside’s economic vitality.

The Hearing Examiner was a pleasant man who said he had a science degree which didn’t get much use in his legal profession. He asked technical questions and seemed to engage more on technical issues than the examiner in Bellevue did. CENSE members took some comfort in that, but there is a problem.

Renton’s land use codes don’t require PSE to prove that the project is needed, or that the company did a reasonable evaluation of alternatives. Many times, we felt like we were wrestling a ghost – hard to find a handhold.

PROJECT NEED

During the CENSE presentation, we showed the Examiner four charts that raise substantial questions about whether Energize Eastside is (or ever was) needed to improve electrical reliability on the Eastside.

The first chart showed PSE’s forecast of Eastside electrical demand from five years ago. The chart shows demand growing like crazy, at least twice the rate of population growth. The chart does not show any historical data to illustrate a growing trend. Now that the chart is five years old, it would be helpful to see what the actual demand was during the first five years so we can see how accurate PSE’s forecast was. PSE stubbornly refuses to provide any data at all.

The second chart shows actual demand data for PSE’s entire service territory (not just the Eastside) for the past 15 years, as reported by PSE to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. This trend is declining by up to 1% per year, due to all the electrical efficiency and advanced technology customers are using to reduce our energy bills and environmental impact (LED lights, smart thermostats, efficient heat pumps, energy-sipping flat-panel TVs, etc.)

The third chart shows actual demand data for just the summer, which PSE says has now become the critical issue. It’s true that summer demand is climbing at almost exactly the rate of population growth (less than 1% per year for PSE’s service territory). But total levels are well below the maximum demand that occurs in the winter. Also, summer demand can be served by solar panels, as PSE admits, but that option was not evaluated in the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for the project. Solar panels would provide a much better way to address summer need.

The final chart is a forecast from Seattle City Light, the electric utility serving Seattle customers. This forecast shows declining demand for electricity for the next 20 years, even though Seattle is growing at a faster rate than the Eastside.

These charts had the desired effect. The Examiner explicitly asked PSE why the company is not sharing Eastside data to satisfy our reasonable questions about the need for the project. PSE’s attorney said, “We don’t have to do that. It would be inappropriate for you to require it, when Renton land use codes do not mandate that we establish a need for the project.”

The Examiner appeared to be satisfied with that answer. We gritted our teeth, but we still have hope. The hearing in Newcastle will be a different story, because Newcastle land use codes DO require PSE to prove need.

PIPELINE SAFETY

The community expressed strong fears about the safety of digging big holes near the petroleum pipelines that transport 13 million gallons of gasoline and jet fuel through our communities each day.

PSE had two expert witnesses on hand to testify that everything would be just fine. One of the experts clarified his testimony from the Bellevue hearing. In that hearing, he had said that electric fields are concentrated at small holes in the pipeline coating called “holidays.” Ironically, the smaller the holiday, the more intense the concentration of the electric field, which accelerates corrosion of the pipeline. The expert said we have nothing to worry about, because the coating on our pipelines is an older kind of coating which is likely to have more holidays, especially after 50 years in the ground. But because those holidays are more frequent and larger, the concentrations of electric field at any one spot are likely to be lower.

We were left scratching our heads. According to this explanation, the best coating would be no coating at all! Why do pipelines even have coatings?

Of course, pipeline coatings are there for a reason. If there is an electric discharge into the pipe, the coating can help protect the pipeline until the electricity is shut off. An unprotected pipe can be breached by the shock of a stroke of lightning conducted down a steel pole (instead of the wooden ones we have today). This topic was unfortunately not discussed during the hearing, but it’s a subject we address in our written comments.

The consequences of a pipeline breach, whether through accelerated corrosion or electric arcing would be potentially catastrophic to our community, especially if it happened near a school.

ALTERNATIVES

Since Energize Eastside was first announced six years ago, the development of alternatives like solar panels and batteries has been astounding. According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the amount of rooftop solar installed in our region has more than tripled since 2014, and the rate is accelerating as solar prices fall and the price of electricity rises.

The Hearing Examiner seemed sympathetic to the argument that summer need should be addressed using solar and batteries. However, PSE’s lawyer said these facts could not be considered in Renton, because reasonable alternatives are not mentioned in Renton’s land use code. It seems unlikely that the Examiner will go outside those bounds.

Again, in Newcastle, it will be a different story, because Newcastle’s land use codes explicitly call for evaluation of feasible alternatives.

EIS ADEQUACY

The lawyer for CENSE argued that the EIS studied a different project than the one under review last night. That project was a 16-mile transmission line connecting big substations in Renton and Redmond, designed to handle a peak WINTER demand scenario. The project we debated last night is an 8.8-mile project from Renton to Bellevue, focused on SUMMER demand. There is no guarantee that PSE will actually build the north end of the project going from Bellevue to Redmond. Therefore, the EIS is invalid. The reduced project might be served by other alternatives, which were all rejected as replacements of the bigger project serving a different seasonal need.

PSE’s lawyer responded with two arguments. First, this is not a shortened project, but rather a “phase” of a bigger project. So the EIS is valid, even if PSE has not filed permit applications to build the north segment. PSE says the Examiner can’t speculate on if or when that might happen. Second, the Examiner isn’t empowered to question the adequacy of the EIS, because that isn’t part of Renton’s land use codes.

The Examiner was clearly interested in this question, and he asked a representative from Bellevue to explain her statement that the south segment of the project could operate independently (the north segment being required only for added redundancy). Her explanation shed almost no light on Bellevue’s determination. However, it will be difficult for PSE to build the north segment now that Bellevue has said it isn’t necessary to meet the need.

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January 10th, 2020|