By - Jim Vess

Big utility projects can present big challenges in dealing with the public

Energize Weekly, December 7, 2016

Big utility projects—wind farms, power houses and transmission lines—often spark big public opposition or at a minimum, public concern. Addressing these issues is a key step in getting the projects off the ground, utility executives say.

When it comes to transmission lines, Arlee Jones, project manager for Tampa Electric, said, “The biggest concerns we hear are about property value loss, aesthetics and EMF health issues.” EMF or electromagnetic fields have been linked to a risk of cancer, although the evidence of a risk from transmission lines is weak, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The goal for a utility is to know what the local concerns are and get out all the information possible on the project, Jones said. There are a number of strategies utilities around the country are using to do just that.

The approach to public engagement also depends upon the public a utility is trying to engage. In the case of Xcel Energy’s 600-megawatt Rush Creek Wind Project and a 90-mile transmission line on the eastern plains of Colorado, the public was mainly composed of ranchers and farmers. The projects cover parts of five counties.

“It’s mainly a rural area, and it’s harder to get the word out,” said Erin Degutis, an Xcel senior agent for siting and land rights. It is an area where the internet is sometimes hard to come by and not widely used. So in addition to a project website, Xcel took out ads in newspapers, developed a newsletter and mailed out invitations to 2,000 landowners, public officials, local agencies and businesses to come to public meetings, Degutis said.

Xcel held a public “open house” in each of the counties touched by the projects. “We held them in late afternoon or early evening so people working on the farms and ranches could attend,” Degutis said. Attendance ranged from fewer than 10 to more than 150.

Dealing with local government in five counties as well as federal agencies accounted for another 14 meetings with local planning staffs, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

While there was attention to accommodating local concerns, there was no real opposition. “This is a generally an economically depressed area because of low commodity prices, and the wind farm is seen as a new revenue stream,” Degutis said.

There was a ripple of concern and rumor when the Sacramento (Calif.) Metropolitan Utility District (SMUD) announced a hydropower project— a 2.7-megawatt power house and water-release valve—on the South Fork of the American River.

The worry was that the river, which is a big draw for recreation—canoeing and kayaking—would adversely be affected. Those recreation activities are a key part of the local economy in this rural area at the edge of the Eldorado National Forest.

 “The biggest rumor was that the SMUD activity would eliminate canoeing and kayaking,” said Jose Bodipo-Memba, environmental management supervisor for the utility.

“Generally, people were worried about the local benefits. They questioned the benefits they would gain since they are outside the SMUD service area,” Bodipo-Memba said. The project was not going to affect recreation, and SMUD even has plans to add extra boat docks.

Under California law, the utility had to contact landowners within 300 feet of the project, and usually SMUD would hold one public meeting on a project, Bodipo-Memba said.

 In this case, the utility contacted everyone with whom they had dealt with on other projects in the area and held two workshops, one on each side of the river for the communities of Camino and Mosquito.

“We had all the members of the team there and local officials who were particularly helpful in dealing with the rumors,” Bodipo-Memba said. SMUD has received all the necessary approval for the project, and construction is set to begin in January of 2017.

The role of public officials is central to projects, said Tampa Electric’s Jones. “Once we defined the scope of the projects, we start with public officials—country commissioners, mayors, city councils—because that’s going to be a resident’s first stop when they hear a new project is being proposed,” he said.

Though sometimes a utility and local officials can be on opposite sides of an issue. Chino Hills, Calif., an affluent town outside of Los Angeles, waged a six-year battle over the route of Southern California Edison’s Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project.

“The company owned the parcels for decades when no one lived there,” said David Song, a spokesman for the utility. “The communities grew up around them, and a state park straddles the area.”

“There was some resistance and a lot of concern from the community,” Song said. The issue ended up before the California Public Utilities Commission. “The commission heard these concerns, decided the best approach was to underground the line,” Song said.

It is a unique solution for the 3.5-mile stretch that will be the nation’s first subterranean 500-kv line. The cost of putting the line underground is estimated at $224 million with a contribution by the city of $17 million in real property.

“For us, we are really looking out for the ratepayers, including the other utilities that use the line,” Song said. “Our mentality was to look forward to design and construct the best possible alternative and to do it in the most cost-effective manner and do it on time.” The line is now being tested and should go into operation in matter of months, he said.

While not always as dramatic as Tehachapi, making accommodations is one of the ways that utilities can gain community support, Jones said.

Managing traffic, coordinating work with school hours, working at night or not are ways to respond to community concerns. “If you can accommodate a landowner by moving a pole five or 10 feet or shifting a line, you do it,” Jones said.

In the case of Xcel’s Rush Creek project, the utility made adjustments on siting turbines and lines so that they accounted for the large turning radius of big farm equipment in fields, Degutis said.

Still, all the outreach, meeting and mailings don’t reach everyone. “The biggest challenge that I’ve seen is people who won’t read the literature, go to the open house or go to the project website, but have a bad opinion of the utility,” Jones said.

Jones, Degutis and Bodipo-Memba will be among the speakers exploring these issues at EUCI’s Best Practices in Public Participation for Transmission Projects conference in San Diego, Jan. 30 and 31, 2017.

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