By David Downey | Contributing Writer
There is still a chance that a new power line will be placed underground – and out of sight – in the Inland Empire’s largest city.
In fall, the Riverside City Council quashed a proposal to bury high-voltage wires and voted narrowly to move a $521 million project forward with above-ground wires.
That project, which aims to give Riverside a second tie-in to the statewide power grid, calls for stringing wires from giant towers.
However, on Tuesday, Jan. 17, the council voted 6-1 to authorize exploring a new approach that could lead to burying part of a 10-mile transmission line along the Santa Ana River through Riverside and Norco.
Council members agreed to form a regional panel tasked with building political support for the idea and lobbying for federal, state and regional dollars to cover the extra expense. That cost could run into the hundreds of millions.
Steve Larson, a former state utilities commission executive and consultant who studied options, told Riverside officials in November that putting a 3.5-mile section below ground could raise the $521 million price tag by as much as 42%.
Councilmembers Chuck Conder and Steve Hemenway are set to lead the group. Also expected to serve are local representatives from Congress, the state Assembly and state Senate, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors and the Norco City Council.
Conder said several politicians have told him they support underground wires and believe money can be found to pay for them.
“This is no guarantee,” Conder said. “This may not happen.”
He added that the panel deserves an opportunity to look for the funds.
The panel will report to the council in October, after federal and state budgets are adopted, Conder said. If efforts come up empty, he said, his city will abandon the exercise and build the line as planned, with above-ground wires in Riverside and Norco. The plan already calls for 4 miles of the line to be built below ground in Jurupa Valley, following a successful campaign to revise the project in that city.
Some opponents of additional undergrounding have said pausing to look for ways to bury more wires could put the project in jeopardy.
“That’s just not true,” Conder said. “That’s sky-is-falling junk.”
However, Councilmember Gaby Plascencia, who cast the lone no vote Tuesday, said she had doubts about whether enough money to cover the cost could be found.
“It sounds like a great idea: ‘Let’s find the money, let’s work together,’” Plascencia said. “But we have to be realistic.”
Riverside’s utility has been working with Southern California Edison on the venture, called the Riverside Transmission Reliability Project, for a decade and a half.
Approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in 2020, the project involves building 10 miles of 230-kilovolt wires through Jurupa Valley, Norco and Riverside.
It aims to provide a second route for delivering electricity to Riverside, and to prevent widespread outages like one that blacked out the city in 2007.
Construction was ready to begin and, according to a November report, was expected to be completed by late 2026.
That timeline likely will change, Edison spokesperson David Song said by phone. Because of the council’s decision, he said the company “will cease all project activity” that is now underway.
At the meeting, Mark Cloud, Edison government affairs manager, told the council that, “by going down this path, potentially we’re looking at a multiyear delay in building this … very important project.”
Also during the meeting, Conder addressed Edison President and CEO Steven Powell, who wasn’t in attendance.
“Mr. Powell, you have a chance to be a hero or a goat,” Conder said, in urging him to work with the panel as it explores options.
“If you don’t,” he added, “every keyboard commando is going to jump on social media – and there’s a lot of different platforms – and they’re going to make you look like that horrible monster of corporate America that you’re not.”
Asked about Conder’s comment, Song did not address it directly, but said Edison is committed to completing the project in a timely manner.
“Any decision to deviate from the fully funded and approved project is not within SCE’s purview but lies with the CPUC,” Song said.
If the panel is successful in its pursuit of funding, the city and Edison would need to petition the utilities commission to modify the project.
Hemenway, who represents Ward 7 on Riverside’s west end, has pushed repeatedly to bury wires.
He said putting wires below ground would protect views, property values and the river environment, and reduce the threat of wildfires. He said he wants to make the project “something we can be proud of for 100 years.”
Councilmember Jim Perry, while supporting the plan, asked for a preliminary report, possibly in June, on the panel’s progress.
“We do need that second connection,” Perry said, adding that a widespread outage during a summer heat wave could threaten older residents and others who are vulnerable.
A few days before Tuesday’s meeting, Norco Mayor Robin Grundmeyer sent a letter to the council urging creation of the panel.
“Working together, we can accomplish your goals while leaving a great environmental legacy for both of our communities,” Grundmeyer wrote.
During the meeting, Jason Hunter, chair of the community group Neighbors Better Together, said, “It seems like we are now gathering momentum to do what’s right for the long term.”
Nicholas Adcock, president and CEO of the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce, said the business group did not take a position on the latest plan.
Adcock said the chamber just wants to see the project built as soon as possible, without significantly raising electric customers’ bills.
“Let’s not slow it down,” he said.
Justin Scott-Coe, who served on Riverside Public Utilities’ governing board from 2009 to 2017, has suggested in recent months that changing the project at this point could jeopardize it. Even if the panel is finds the funding, he said Tuesday by phone, the money would be better spent retooling Riverside’s power system to accommodate the growing number of solar panels and electric cars, among other trends.
“Our utility needs to be focused on the needs of the future, not on whether or not we can see power lines,” Scott-Coe said.