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PSE upgrades as buyout plans move forward

PSE engineering supervisor Randy Wells inspects a circuit breaker’s control panel in Greenbank. The replacement cost of a substation is anywhere from $4 million to $12 million. - Jeff VanDerford / The Record
PSE engineering supervisor Randy Wells inspects a circuit breaker’s control panel in Greenbank. The replacement cost of a substation is anywhere from $4 million to $12 million.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford / The Record

GREENBANK — As proponents of a Whidbey public utility district continue moving forward with their plans to get a measure crafted for the November ballot, Puget Sound Energy is upgrading on Whidbey Island.

If Whidbey residents want to set up their own public utility district, they’d best be prepared to ante up big bucks, PSE officials said Thursday.

PSE has purchased 32 acres of land at Coles Road and Highway 525 with plans to build a new switching station, as far from the highway as safety allows.

“We estimate the cost at

$10 million to $12 million for the station and associated electrical feeder lines,” said PSE engineer Kit Maret.

Maret said the new facility is in response to residents’ complaints the Past few years over a series of power outages during winter storms. The new substation will back up others and feature more robust high-energy lines.

PSE also is in the process of installing 15,000 feet of new tree wire along Midvale, Brooks Hill and Bayview roads.

“Tree wire is specially insulated to prevent phase-to-phase shorting caused by limbs and smaller branches,” Maret said. “We also plan to upgrade our South Whidbey substations in 2010 by adding a 115-kilovolt capacitor bank to increase reliability.”

There are 10 civilian substations on Whidbey Island, each designed to transform, then transfer electricity to homes and businesses over 329 miles of overhead lines and 342 underground lines.

During a media tour, hosted by PSE Thursday at the company’s Greenbank electrical substation, officials said residents would require a full accounting of all that PSE owns on Island County before making any decisions.

PSE public relations manager Gretchen Aliabadi said the power company has initiated a high-level study of its assets on Whidbey Island and expects to reveal the results by mid-August.

“All I can say is the total is something above $77 million,” she said. That amount reflects the cost to residents of Jefferson County, who are also attempting to create their own utility district. Aliabadi said the PSE study on Whidbey is expected to show a substantially higher figure.

She noted that there are unseen assets such as real property, easements and a billing system. “Plus the experts needed to run a complicated utility,” she added.

Maret and Aliabadi were frank in admitting the media tour was designed to get the word out to islanders about the potential huge investment required when converting to a public utility district.

“According to state law, residents would pay the fair market value as determined by a judge,” Aliabadi said. “The study will determine what we believe the system is worth, and voters will decide if they want to pay. They need to understand there is a deep well of physical assets involved.”

Maret noted that PSE, as with all utility companies, is highly regulated at the state level.

PSE intends to host a neighborhood meeting in August to talk about the new substation plans and answer questions related to a proposed public utility district.

At the Greenbank substation on Highway 525 and Bakken Road, engineering supervisor Randy Walls explained that a set of giant circuit breakers — each 10 feet high and filled with oil — isolates and protects the system, allowing 115,000 volts of power to be stepped down to 12,500 volts before heading out. Power poles reduce the voltage to 220 for homes, reduced to 110 at the outlet.

Power arrives from the mainland. When there’s a fault to the north, the system is designed to isolate the break and keep the lines hot.

The first responder on the scene is a high-voltage electrician. If he can repair the problem, fine. If not, he contacts Walls.

“If it’s more complicated, he calls me and I send out a crew, as many as needed,” Walls said.

The biggest problem in storms is fallen trees and heavy branches on power lines. The response is similar, except that Walls sends out tree and power linemen to perform on-site repairs.

Meanwhile, county commissioners will discuss the future borders of a potential PUD on Whidbey Island at 10:15 a.m. Monday, Aug. 4 at the Commissioner’s Hearing Room in Coupeville.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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