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Commission restores free power line extensions in parts of rural Arizona

Roberta Birdsell outside her mobile home on land she purchased in the northwestern Arizona community of Golden Valley. Her local utility wanted $7,500 to extend a power line 350 feet to her property. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Griselda Nevarez)

Roberta Birdsell outside her mobile home on land she purchased in the northwestern Arizona community of Golden Valley. Her local utility wanted $7,500 to extend a power line 350 feet to her property. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Griselda Nevarez)

Roberta Birdsell thought paying $12,000 for two undeveloped acres and moving into a mobile home there would set her up for an affordable retirement.

Her husband passed away last April, and she was struggling to keep up with the mortgage payments on their home outside Kingman. Birdsell used her husband’s life insurance to buy the land, and she laid plans to sell her home.

Then a phone call to the area’s electric utility brought those plans to a halt: She’d have to pay $7,500 to have power lines extended 350 feet onto her property.

That was more than Birdsell could afford, so she remained in her house until early this year as it went into foreclosure.

“I was being forced to live in a house with no electricity and no heat,” she said.

But a recent ruling by the Arizona Corporation Commission allowed Birdsell and other customers of UniSource Energy Services, which provides electricity to 230,000 people in rural areas of northern and southern Arizona, to receive power line extensions for free if the distance is 400 feet or less.

Birdsell’s mobile home received electricity on Jan. 26, and she’s moved in.
YouTube Preview Image “I just prayed daily that they would make the right decision, and they did,” she said.

Until 2008, customers of UniSource and its sister company, Tucson Electric Power, received free power line extensions up to 400 feet, and Arizona Public Service customers received free extensions up to 1,000 feet. Kristin Mayes, the former chairwoman of the Arizona Corporation Commission, led an effort to eliminate those policies, saying all ratepayers shouldn’t have to bear the cost of line extensions and that growth should pay for itself.

The cost of a power line extension averages between $4,000 and $7,000, according to Joe Salkowski, a spokesman for UniSource Energy Services. He said it’s too soon to know whether or not rates will go up under the new policy.

The ruling doesn’t doesn’t apply to customers of Arizona Public Service, which serves the central part of the state, and Tucson Electric Power, which serves more than 375,000 customers in southern Arizona. Salt River Project, another major energy provider, isn’t regulated by the Corporation Commission because it is a quasi-governmental entity.

John LeSueur, policy adviser to Arizona Corporation Commission Chairman Gary Pierce, said Pierce hopes to restore APS and Tucson Electric Power’s policies on free line extensions.

“It is commissioner Pierce’s hope and his belief that reinstating the old policies will help stimulate the economy and hopefully restore property values that have been hit pretty hard,” LeSueur said.

But APS customers must wait until June and Tucson Electric Power customers must wait until 2013, when the companies are eligible to file a rate case with the commission.

Kathleen Murray, government affairs director for the Kingman-Golden Valley Association of REALTORS, said the change will make people more willing to purchase undeveloped land in the area.

“I think it is going to make it easier for people to make use of their property and it will help with sales too,” Murray said.

Mohave County Assessor Ron Nicholson said the change will help bring back potential buyers who have been discouraged by line-extension fees.

“I can’t sit here and say all of a sudden this is going to rush purchasing of land just because this is no longer in place, but I can say this will no longer be a hindrance,” he said.

The change passed 3-2, with Sandra D. Kennedy and Paul Newman, the commission’s only Democrats, voting against.

Kennedy said she wanted proof that free power line extensions would provide an economic boost.

“I’m not totally against line extensions,” she said. “I just want to make sure we are doing it properly.”

In his written dissent, Newman advocated for a policy basing the cost of each power line extensions on the promised economic impact.

“I believe that a ‘cost-benefit test’ for free footage is in the public interest and makes sense,” he wrote.

For Birdsell, having electricity in her home and not facing a big bill gives her a sense of relief.

“I am no longer angry, I am no longer attempting suicide, I am no longer depressed, I am just happy,” she said.

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Facts about UniSource Energy Services:

– Provides gas and electric services to 230,000 customers in rural areas of northern and southern Arizona.

– Part of UniSource Energy, which also operates Tucson Electric Power.

– Regulated by the Arizona Corporation Commission.

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