Photo by Mark Searcy

PATRICIA SOMLO stood at the front of the crowd, and demanded answers from Portland General Electric (PGE) staffers.

"My first question to you is why are you here? You act as if you've come here to listen to us, and then you lecture us," she said tersely, reflecting the sentiment among the dozens of neighbors assembled in Southeast Portland's Sunnyside Environmental School auditorium.

They'd met up on Thursday night, October 16, to hear PGE's latest plans for expanding the electrical substation on SE 32nd and Belmont—and the meeting did not go well. Neighbors want to see expansion alternatives—like undergrounding the substation, or insulating the equipment with gas, so the additional transformer could be squeezed into the existing space—but PGE staffers presented a plan that would knock down three existing homes and nearly double the size of the substation.

"If this goes through, all of us are suing PGE for the loss of value on our homes," Somlo concluded.

The circa-1961 substation must be upgraded, PGE Regional Manager Christine Dunn told the crowd at the outset of the meeting, "so we can meet our customers' needs today and in the future." Energy demand grows one to two percent each year.

"With the continued revitalization of SE Portland, we need to add capacity in this area to serve our customers," added PGE System Planning Manager Jeff Wheeler.

Though a few folks at the meeting objected to increased energy consumption on climate change grounds, most neighbors understood that PGE needs to boost the substation's capacity. What they didn't understand, however, is why the project's staff seemed stuck on the cheapest option: "Simply adding the transformer and expanding the substation," as Wheeler described it, at a cost of about $4 million. PGE staff—plus Frank Angelo, a planning consultant—have already met with the city about the project, and plan to submit a permit application in November. "We'll start construction late next year, and our intent is to have the project complete in 2010," Wheeler explained.

Neighbors concerns range from property values to electromagnetic fields (and their tenuous link to childhood leukemia), to the possibility that this barebones substation expansion will set a precedent for other neighborhoods around Portland.

Given those concerns—which neighbors say they've brought up at three previous, smaller meetings—residents asked why PGE hasn't presented other more community-friendly options. "This might be an opportunity for you," pointed out Tami Kent, whose son attends the nearby school. "It could be a huge benefit or a huge thorn in your side."

Dr. Bill Fish, an engineer professor at Portland State University, told the team from PGE that he "would generously give you a D-minus" for presenting a single, low-cost option.

Wheeler explained that PGE looked at undergrounding the substation, but estimated it would cost $30 million. Meanwhile, he explained that the gas insulation technology would add "$1 to $2 million" to the project cost.

His answers didn't placate the crowd. "Everything that's been said here is reasonable. We are asking why is the bottom-line dollar the only thing that matters to this corporation? Why don't the people who live here matter at all?" asked one woman from the back of the room. "Meet us halfway. Please."

By the end of the night, neighbors rebuffed Dunn's suggestion that a smaller group convene to discuss the project ("This group is only going to get bigger!" one resident replied), and Wheeler said they'd get back to neighbor Greg Raisman's request that PGE "withdraw your applications, sit down with us, and come up with something that improves livability and health."

PGE spokesman Steve Corson—who attended the meeting—says "we obviously got an earful at the neighborhood association meeting, and that's not a surprise." PGE "needs to get input from the city" before the project engineers can determine "whether or not there's a way to line up whatever the city is requiring of us with the concerns that were raised in the neighborhood association meeting." To get the city's input, PGE will proceed with their permit application. "Filing the application isn't the end of the process, filing the application is a step in the process," he adds.

As for PGE's concerns about cost, Corson points out that "it's not just a matter of doing what the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association wants us to do, it's doing what our overall customer base wants us to do."

Meanwhile, neighbors plan to meet up this weekend to plot their next move—including applying for a grant to join with other SE Portland neighborhood associations, or even print anti-expansion lawn signs.