The scenic hills of Edna Valley are known for wines and vines, but something new could soon appear on the hills: more power lines.
PG&E is in the early stages of proposing a massive transmission line project that could potentially add 230-kilovolt towers — one of the highest-voltage transmission lines the utility uses — throughout much of Edna Valley and rural South County.
The project, called Central California Connect, is planned to connect an existing power station in Buttonwillow, California, with a new substation in Santa Maria to improve the electrical infrastructure in Santa Barbara County, including Santa Maria and Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Though the majority of the power will go to Santa Barbara County, the new line will help prevent electrical overload on the existing lower voltage lines and reduce the chance of power outages in the southern San Luis Obispo County grid, project representative Nicole Liebelt said.
“I think the need for this is evident,” she said. “This will benefit customers in both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.”
Liebelt said early estimates put the cost of the project between $120 million and $150 million, though that is subject to change depending on which route is chosen.
Where the power lines would go is up for debate: The utility is in the process of determining its preferred routes, which it will then submit to the California Public Utilities Commission for final approval in September.
There are eight proposed routes, three of which could bring the transmission lines within easy sight of San Luis Obispo County residents (the others stay mostly out of view in eastern SLO County, in Los Padres National Forest and the Carrizo Plain).
Two routes, I and E, travel from Buttonwillow in Kern County through Los Padres National Forest, into the Huasna Valley south of Lopez Lake before heading south through Nipomo — joining up with an existing 230-kilovolt line — to connect with Santa Maria.
The third option, called Route H, is particularly contentious among a group of San Luis Obispo County residents. It would have the transmission lines cross the Cuesta Grade, go south past San Luis Obipso into the Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys, and down through Nipomo before connecting with Santa Maria.
This option would potentially place transmission towers — which could range from 100 to 190 feet tall — in some of the county’s more scenic hillsides, in the line of sight of local wineries’ tasting rooms and numerous multimillion-dollar homes dotting the landscape.
“It’s like Napa Valley,” Varian Ranch resident Paula Patterson said. “It’s like putting power lines right through the middle of Napa Valley.”
The Edna Valley area already has several lower-voltage transmission lines running through it, connecting south to Nipomo. Those towers tend to be slightly smaller, about 70 to 95 feet in height, though that varies depending on the terrain and other variables.
Residents also are concerned the new proposed towers — which are larger than existing towers — will obstruct views and lower property values.
Max Riedlsperger, who built his home in Edna Valley because of the views, referenced the county’s stance on preserving “visual resources” when asked why he was upset by the proposal to bring the power lines past his front yard.
Riedlsperger quoted from the county’s General Plan statement on viewsheds, which designates the corridor along Orcutt Road from San Luis Obispo city limits to Lopez Drive as a scenic corridor.
“It’s right here: ‘The county recognizes that — visual resources are part of the sense of place recognized by residents; intact scenic landscapes are highly valued by residents and visitors; a high quality visual environment and scenic views contribute to economic growth.’ ”
“I couldn’t put it better than that,” Riedlsperger said.
The PG&E proposal is not subject to review by the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission, meaning the only opportunity for concerned residents to protest will be to PG&E or to the state PUC once the application is filed in September.
Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped numerous people from reaching out to their county supervisors to express concerns about the potential routes.
Supervisor Lynn Compton, whose 4th District would be most impacted by the contentious routes, said she has met with numerous “concerned constituents” about the project and has helped facilitate meetings between the residents and PG&E.
“While none of these constituents would disagree with the goal of providing a more reliable and dependable power source, our office has fielded many questions about the route that will be chosen as the eventual transmission pathway,” she said. “In meeting with these constituent groups, I can tell you there is definitely a preference for establishing this route over public lands, versus private property.”
Compton said she will continue to try and help connect concerned citizens with the utility.
Though PG&E held two community meetings in early 2016 to inform the public of the project, Riedlsperger, Patterson and former Edna Valley resident Bill Thoma all worried that not enough county residents were aware of the project.
To remedy this, they have circulated petitions to protest the more visible routes, with plans to give them to PG&E.
“I don’t think they want to have this here, but they have to have us show them we don’t want it here,” Thoma said.
Liebelt said PG&E will take all of the public’s concerns into consideration as it is drafting its official proposal but noted that in the end, the decision rests with the CPUC.
For more information on the project, or to provide comment to PG&E, visit http://bit.ly/2jSpLUA.