Bulk Transmission Environment in California
At a Glance
|Environmental Review Process:||Developers must comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when developing projects in California. According to the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) General Order NO. 131-D 200kV and higher voltage require process of both Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN) and CEQA environmental analysis; facilities between 50kV and 200kV require a Permit to Construct which includes CEQA level environmental analysis.|
|Environmental Review Agency:||California Public Utilities Commission|
|Type of State Environmental Review (Leasing Stage):|
|Type of State Environmental Review (Non-invasive Exploration):|
|Type of State Environmental Review (Invasive Exploration):|
|Type of State Environmental Review (Drilling):|
|Type of State Environmental Review (Power Plant Siting):|
|Contacts/Agencies:||California Public Utilities Commission, California State Historic Preservation Officer, California Department of Fish & Wildlife, California State Water Resources Control Board, Regional Water Quality Control Boards, Environmental Protection Agency, California Environmental Protection Agency Department of Toxic Substances Control, California Local Air Districts|
State Environment Process
California Environmental Quality Act Process
Transmission lines 200kV or greater are required to undergo a two-part state siting and permitting process with the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC). One part of the process will analyze the need for the project and consists of obtaining a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN) from the CPUC. The other part of the process will analyze environmental and community impacts in the environmental analysis for CEQA. The environmental analysis process ensures that environmental impacts are evaluated pursuant to CEQA.  The proponent will first develop and submit a Proponent's Environmental Assessment (PEA), which includes detailed analysis of environmental resources, community values, aesthetic resources, and historic resources.  Project alternatives are also included in the environmental analysis and must include the methods used to arrive at the proposed proposal and alternatives, and the alternatives considered but eliminated and the reasons for elimination.  Alternatives are discussed in the detailed discussion of significant impacts chapter of the PEA. The environmental impact assessment summary section of the PEA includes the following resources:
- Agriculture Resources
- Air Quality
- Biological Resources
- Cultural Resources
- Geology, Soils, and Seismicity
- Hazards and Hazardous Materials
- Hydrology and Water Quality
- Land Use and Planning
- Mineral Resources
- Population and Housing
- Public Services
- Transportation and Traffic
- Utilities and Services Systems
- Cumulative Analysis
- Growth-Inducing Impacts, If Significant
Under CEQA, every development permit is assigned a “lead agency” to coordinate the environmental review among all other state or local agencies. Some state agencies have developed their own environmental review processes in lieu of preparing Environmental Impact Reports (EIR). Developers may qualify for a categorical exemption outlined in 14 CRR §§ 15300-15333, or a statutory exemption outlined in 14 CRR §§ 15260-15285. The lead agency will conduct and initial survey to determine whether an environmental document must be prepared. If an environmental document is necessary, then the developer will be required to participate in one or more scoping meetings. The lead agency will develop Draft and Final Environmental Impact Reports, and respond to any public comments. Developers may continue with their project following issuance of a Final Environmental Impact Report and the approval of any required permits.
Cultural Resource Assessment
Developers must comply with requirements for designation of historical resources in California. The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), part of the State Historical Resources Commission oversees the program to identify, evaluate, register, and protect historical resources. Developers should contact SHPO to determine if there are any listed historical resources within the proposed project’s site. In California, state cultural issues are considered during the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process.  While the CEQA lead agency is considering environmental impacts, any cultural considerations must be addressed. Developers typically retain an archaeologist and a historian to perform the analysis. The archaeologist and historian will conduct surveys to determine potential impacts of the project to cultural resources. Developers may be required to undertake mitigation measures to avoid negative impact to cultural resources.
Biological Resource Assessment Process
Developers must obtain an Incidental Take Permit from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) if their project will result in a “taking” of a California endangered or protected species. Under California law, “take” means to “hunt, pursue, catch, capture, or kill, or attempt to hunt, pursue, catch, capture, or kill.”  Developers must submit an Incidental Take Permit to CDFW for review. Developers may be required to undertake mitigation measures to avoid or lessen negative impacts on protected species.
Water Resource Assessment
Developers may be required to obtain several permits related to water quality issues, including permits for nonpoint source pollution, National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting, and Section 401 water quality certification.
Developers may be required to comply with a Nonpoint Source Pollution (NPS) Control Program if one has been developed by the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) or a Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) for the activity proposed by the developer. Developers may choose to implement a project-specific NPS pollution control plan if the SWRCB or RWQCB NPS pollution control plans do not cover the developer’s project. Developers should contact the relevant SWRCB or RWQCB to determine the requirements for a project-specific NPS pollution control program. Any project-specific plan must be approved, and an on-site evaluation will be conducted to ensure effectiveness.
Developers must comply with National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) requirements if their project will discharge pollutants into the waters of the United States. California has been granted authority by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to administer the NPDES program within the state. In California, the NPDES permit program is implemented by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) and the nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards (RWQCB). Developers may apply for coverage under a general NPDES permit, or may apply for an individual NPDES permit. A general NPDES permit covers multiple facilities within a specific category. An individual NPDES permit is specifically tailored to an individual proposed project for an effective period of no more than five years. Developers must submit an application for an individual NPDES permit to the relevant SWRCB or RWQCB for review. Following review, the complete application will be forwarded to the EPA for comments. The SWRCB or RWQCB will develop a draft permit and a final NPDES permit that also must be reviewed by the EPA. Developers may be required to participate in a public hearing.
Developers must obtain a Section 401 Water Quality Certification from California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) if their project implicates any federal license or permit issued to construct or operate a facility which may result in any fill or discharge into navigable waters of the United States, including wetlands. Developers must submit a Section 401 Water Quality Certification Application to the SWRCB, and notify the appropriate regional water quality control board.  The regional board will make recommendations to SWRCB and inform of conditions necessary to ensure the activity will comply with water quality standards. SWRCB must publish notice of the application, and the developer may be required to participate in a public hearing.
Air Quality Assessment Process
Air quality permits applicable to transmission line construction and operation were not identified for the state of California; however, applicants should review federal, state, and local laws and regulations for air quality permits or compliance that may be applicable to each individual project such as construction permits or fugitive dust plans.
Electric and Magnetic Field Regulations
Electric and magnetic fields (EMF) are invisible areas of energy that surround any electrical device including transmission lines, electrical wiring, and household appliances. Most medical experts and other scientific peer reviews of the more than 30 years of conducted research agree there is no conclusive evidence of harmful effects from exposure to EMF nor has there been a demonstrated biological mechanism that links EMF exposure to a disease. EMF Electric Fields Associated with the Use of Electric Power: Questions and Answers brochure contains more information regarding EMF.
Some government and non-government organizations have set limits for EMF exposures. In the State of California, the CPUC has directed all investor-owned utilities in the state to take a “no-cost and low-cost” magnetic field reduction measures for new and upgraded electrical facilities CPUC Decision 93-11-013 .
“Low-cost” measures are those steps taken to reduce magnetic field levels at a reasonable cost. The CPUC Decision states:
We direct the utilities to use 4 percent as a benchmark in developing their EMF mitigation guidelines. We will not establish 4 percent as an absolute cap at this time because we do not want to arbitrarily eliminate a potential measure that might be available but costs more than the 4 percent figure. Conversely, the utilities are encouraged to use effective measures that cost less than 4 percent.’’
Developers should also review local government regulations for EMF standards or guidelines.
Developers should be aware that the potential effects of transmission projects on visual resources has been a challenge in siting transmission facilities. Transmission line projects may cause visual contrast within the landscapes they cross due to their length, size and the regular geometric forms of the transmission towers. These projects may affect sensitive viewers (i.e., residents, recreationist, etc.) located along the right-of-way.
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires an assessment of the potential for significant impacts with respect to visual resources. The CEQA guidelines to assess impacts to visual resources and aesthetics include the following criteria:
- Would the project have a substantial adverse effect on a scenic vista?
- Would the project substantially damage scenic resources, including, but not limited to trees, rock outcroppings, and historic buildings within a state scenic highway?
- Would the proposed project substantially degrade the existing visual character or quality of the site and its surroundings?
- Would the project create a new source of substantial light or glare which would adversely affect day or nighttime views in the area?
When analyzing these criteria, four response choices are available:
- Potentially Significant Impact
- Less than Significant Impact with Mitigation
- Less than Significant Impact
- No Impact
Developers should review local government resource management plans, comprehensive plans, regulations, ordinances, and other land planning documents in order to identify any scenic resources that should be addressed in CEQA analysis.
Waste and Hazardous Material Assessment Process
Permits as they relate to regulated quantities of waste and hazardous materials do not typically apply to transmission line projects; however, applicants should review federal, state, and local laws and regulations for permits that may be applicable. Some ancillary facilities such as certain types of substations may require compliance with state and federal waste and hazardous materials regulations.
Local Environment Process
Local jurisdictions do not have siting authority for transmission facilities.
Policies & Regulations
- ACE-II: Areas of Conservation Emphasis
- An Introduction to Electric Power Transmission
- CEQA Environmental Review
- CEQA and Historical Resources Technical Assistance
- CHAT: Crucial Habitat Assessment Tools
- California Department of Fish and Wildlife Consistency Determination Webpage
- California Department of Fish and Wildlife Environmental Review and Permitting Webpage
- California Department of Fish and Wildlife: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Hydroelectric Projects
- California Desert Native Plants Act
- California Endangered Species Act
- California Endangered Species Act Species List
- California Environmental Quality Act
- California Lake and Streambed Alteration Program
- California Marine Life Protection Act
- California Native Plant Protection Act
- California Natural Community Conservation Plan Act
- California Nonpoint Source Program Strategy and Implementation Plan, 1998-2013
- California Permit Streamlining Act
- California Register
- California State Water Resources Control Board 401 Water Quality Certification Website
- California Waste Discharge Requirements Website
- Electric Transmission Siting at the California PUC
- Environmental Recommendations for Transmission Planning
- Friends of Sierra Madre v. City of Sierra Madre, 25 Cal. 4th 165 (2000)
- Full Permit Application Handbook
- Hazardous Waste Facility Permit Fact Sheet
- Memorandum of Understanding 2011
- Memorandum of Understanding 2013
- NEPA and CEQA: Integrating Federal and State Environmental Reviews
- NPDES Questions & Answers
- NPS Pollution Control Program
- NPS Pollution Control Program Fact Sheet
- NPS Quick Reference Guide
- Permit by Rule Guide
- Proponent’s Environmental Assessment (PEA) Checklist for Transmission Line and Substation Projects
- Regional Water Board NPDES Program Manager
- Regional Water Quality Control Boards
- Report of Waste Discharge application (Form 200)
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
- SWRCB General NPDES Permits
- Standardized Permit Guidance
- State Clearinghouse Handbook
- Testing the Effectiveness of an Avian Flight Diverter for Reducing Avian Collissions with Distribution Power Lines in the Sacramento Valley, California
- P.R.C. § 21000-21189.3 et.seq. (1970).
- P.U.C. § 1002 (1981).
- P.U.C. § 1002.3 (1951).
- Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21001 (1970). (b)
- California Fish and Game Code Section 86 (2014).
- 23 CCR 3855 et seq. - Water Quality Certification (2014).