Rich Tower, Poor Tower

For residents of southwest Denver who oppose the plan by Xcel Energy to replace electrical lines with taller towers, the issue is as much about the marring of Ruby Hill Park’s scenic view as what they perceive as a double standard in policy. Neighborhood groups want the new lines buried or relocated; Xcel so far has refused. So the question: If working-class Ruby Hill was a pricey ‘hood like Wash Park, would the situation be the same?

“There are neighborhoods where it’s impossible to imagine Xcel getting the political authority to put in these kinds of lines,” says Kathleen MacKenzie, who recently completed her term as Councilwoman for District 7. “The outrage is not as great at Ruby Hill because people there have more than one job and they’re not all English-speaking. They’re not used to having influence at city hall.”

Xcel has repeatedly denied that demographics have any influence on how a project is approached. Company representatives point out that numerous other city parks have above-ground power transmission lines, including Riverfront Park, Observatory Park, and sections of the Cherry Creek bike path. Xcel must first gain approval from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission before a power line can be buried. At a July 9 public hearing on the subject, Jay Herman of the state PUC explained that a utility “needs to prove that the cost to place the transmission lines underground is less than the cost to place them over head.”

Along with reducing rates, the intent of the rule is to ensure that favoritism doesn’t occur when politicians pressure electric providers to keep the unattractive towers out of sight in their districts. But when locating in dense, urban areas, the regulation can sometimes have the opposite effect. Take, for example, transmission lines that were built underground in the 1980s along Speer Boulevard near the Denver Country Club. To have built aboveground, wide swaths of land would have to be purchased and cleared to meet National Electric Safety Code standards. Meanwhile, the PUC required that the utility pursue the least costly alternative.

“And to install that line above ground we would have had to purchase numerous multi-million dollar homes to get the easement,” says Xcel spokesperson Tom Henley. “So that just wasn’t a viable option. It wasn’t cost effective.”

So, by this logic, if the area around Speer Boulevard was stocked with $136,000 dollar houses (like in southwest Denver) instead of the $1.1 million mansions of Country Club, the PUC would have required that Xcel build overhead power lines. Certainly, the Ruby Hill Park situation is different since Xcel already owns an easement and doesn’t need to demolish homes. But it’s clear that attempts by state overseers to blind the system to poverty and wealth through regulation may actually be putting power in the wrong places. –Jared Jacang Maher

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Sean Cronin