The amount of time companies are spending on public outreach before they make regulatory approval filings for proposed transmission projects is increasing, industry sources say.
Though a certain amount of public outreach is already required, some companies have found that extending that period has helped facilitate a more streamlined and, in some cases, quicker regulatory approval process.
Typically, public outreach involves open houses, or public meetings during which the company pitching the project details the reasons for its construction and proposed routes, and holds discussions – and possibly negotiations – with potentially affected landowners or homeowners. Public outreach can also involve online resources, like project websites through which a stakeholder can submit questions, and social media, like Twitter and Facebook.
“As you hear anecdotal evidence that it’s getting easier, that body of evidence out there encourages success and all utilities that are developing [transmission] to think about outreach,” Jimmy Glotfelty, senior vice president of external affairs and co-founder of Clean Line Energy, told TransmissionHub. “It may be new but I think it’s a trend that really has come from within the industry.”
Across Texas, for example, companies have been extending their public outreach periods, which has helped some reach consensus over project routes sooner, according to Terry Hadley, communications director with the Public Utilities Commission of Texas (PUCT).
“We’ve seen that a lot of these community meetings prior to filing an application can open up a dialogue [before] legal proceedings, and that way everybody is not quite as edgy, not quite as nervous, and frankly it’s a process that I think for everybody isn’t quite as expensive because you’re not talking about depositions and contested cases,” Hadley said. “This is a way to establish a dialogue and a relationship and try to work out differences prior to what essentially is a contested case before a regulatory body.”
Though Hadley said he had yet to see “hard evidence” that such public outreach has necessarily shortened the amount of time it takes to get a project approved once an application has been filed, he conceded there is “an argument that it might actually result in a speedier process if some of the major contentious issues can be worked out with landowners.”
For some, the process allows a company to propose the best route possible, having considered extensive public input and possibly executed negotiations with landowners, by the time it files for regulatory approval.
“Once [the project] gets into the regulatory process, you really don’t know what the commissioners may or may not approve,” said Randy Roper, regulatory case manager for AEP Service Company.
Electric Transmission Texas, the joint venture between American Electric Power (NYSE:AEP) and MidAmerican Energy, has been able to get noncritical, non-Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ) projects approved in under a year, and some in as few as 80 days, according to Roper.
“We’ve had very good luck with settling routes, even in contested cases, because it gives us a better route to take to the commission for their review,” Roper said. “A lot of projects we file, typically because of the front-end work, we can get approved in seven to eight months. The front-end changes you’ve made by the time you get a route approved by the commission is a route that is probably best from the landowner standpoint, too, as far as acceptance goes.”
The PUCT has one year to approve non-critical, non-CREZ projects, and six months to approve CREZ projects.
Xcel Energy (NYSE:XEL) public affairs manager Tim Carlsgaard said the extensive public outreach the company has done for the CapX2020 projects has not necessarily shortened the amount of time it has taken to obtain regulatory approval. In Minnesota, it takes 18 months to 24 months to get a certificate of convenience and necessity and 12 to 18 months for a route permit.
“Those things have been about that time frame that we were told, so I guess that I would say that it helped in that we did come in within the timeframe we estimated,” he said, adding that a the lack of public outreach would have delayed the permitting process beyond that time frame.
Conducting a more thorough public outreach process is a trend that some believe could culminate in a requirement.
“I do think that regulators and their staff now go to these conferences, hear people like myself talk about what we’re doing and see for themselves what companies do for projects,” Carlsgaard said. “State legislators are going to demand this type of outreach and communication. More and more regulators and commissioners are aware of this.”
But whether it does or not, he predicted more companies would start conducting more thorough public outreach programs.
“I think that if they’re not doing it, they’re not going to be successful, because even the regulators expect that from you now,” Carlsgaard said.