Failure to account for environmental impacts, particularly avoidable impacts, tends to trigger opposition to new transmission projects, according to Ginny Kreitler, senior advisor, energy and environment with the National Audubon Society.
For example, she told TransmissionHub, Audubon opposes facility siting in designated important bird areas (IBAs), especially the top tier of IBAs, which are classed as of global significance. The status of any particular IBA may get upgraded if a panel review was recently undertaken. Additionally, she said, new IBAs are designated on an ongoing basis. “Project developers are encouraged to check for current information before getting too far into their route planning,” Kreitler said.
Having the best available information on sensitive areas from the outset facilitates avoidance of environmental conflicts. “Environmental organizations and wildlife agencies recognize that not every conflict can be avoided but, if there is an early effort made to achieve the best reasonable environmental outcome, acceptance levels rise accordingly,” she said. “And it is a needless cost to the company when years of litigation and delay result in a siting decision that eventually conforms to environmental input received years earlier but went unheeded at the project’s outset.”
Projects that affect endangered species or federal lands will need statutorily required environmental reviews, she said, noting that there are many species and places of conservation concern that do not fit into those categories. “This is probably one of the most significant challenges to planning a transmission line in an environmentally responsible way,” she said. “It would be wise to reach out to the state wildlife agencies and Natural Heritage programs to ascertain where some of these sensitive resources are located and to begin the dialogue that will help avoid as much of the conflict as possible.”
Additionally, there are numerous landscape-level planning systems that are available or will be soon, such as the Southeast Ecological Framework. Next year, she added, the energy development zones planning tool for states in the Eastern Interconnection will be available and similar tools have been developed or are under development in the West, either under the Western Governors Association or the WECC Environmental Data Task Force.
Following up with outreach to environmental stakeholders is a key next step, she said, adding that adjusting routing to avoid impacts and working with agencies to mitigate unavoidable impacts will show that best efforts have been made to accommodate good conservation planning as a project is initiated, refined and finalized.
Kreitler suggested that project developers scrutinize potential impacts to conservation priority areas and reach out to wildlife agencies, public land managers and environmental organizations, as well as affected communities early in their project planning activities.
“In the East, where over 90% of the land is in private ownership, it is insufficient to merely identify which lands are in state or federal ownership, and to avoid these parks, forests and refuges,” she said. “Conservation priorities are not confined to the public land acreages and areas of sensitivity may not be obvious without consultation with informed sources.”
Admittedly, she said, the information to guide transmission project planning toward more environmentally sound solutions has not always been easily accessible to transmission companies. “This is why Audubon is so deeply engaged in the planning tool development now taking place at the interconnection level,” she added. “But transmission project planners should not fall back on the need for better planning tools as an excuse for poor environmental due diligence at the outset.”
There are willing partners in the state agencies and environmental community who will be interested in the opportunity for earlier consideration of environmental sensitivities, she said, adding, “From our perspective, it is better to avoid impacts than to mitigate damages, and it is a frustration to learn about project proposals at the later stages when certain opportunities for impact avoidance have already been taken off the table.”
Much of Audubon’s involvement on transmission impacts is at the planning level, Kreitler said. For instance, she serves as a member of the Caucus in the Eastern Interconnection Planning Collaborative and leads the Caucus’ Lands Committee, working with the Energy Development Zones Committee of the state regulators, the Eastern Interconnection States Planning Council.
The committee, she said, is overseeing the development of a planning tool that will use GIS data on natural resources and other landscape features to enable project developers, regional transmission organizations, regulators and the public to examine the proposed locations of generation and transmission facilities.
National Audubon has also contributed to similar work in the Western Interconnection where the WECC Environmental Data Task Force has been creating tools for the same purposes, that is, earlier and fuller consideration of infrastructure impacts on the landscape, she said.
Transmission key for renewables
Another organization working on transmission issues is the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which, according to Carl Zichella, director for western transmission, land and wildlife program with the Natural Resources Defense Council, helps transmission developers, whose business model involves renewable energy resources, avoid conflicts in siting projects. “We’re not interested in transmission that facilitates or enables coal plants or increased fossil in the western U.S.,” he told TransmissionHub.
He said of transmission developers: “It’s important for folks to try to communicate with us early to let us know what they’re thinking in terms of what their routing is. We can help people really avoid a lot of mistakes and save a lot of time and money. It’s in all of our interests that we choose the least environmentally harmful places to route transmission [and] take advantage to the greatest extent we can of existing corridors, rights of way and infrastructure.”
If that is done, lines will get permitted and put in service much faster than they would otherwise be. That is important “so we don’t intrude upon areas that are controversial and can stop projects and, in turn, [protect] the natural resources that are under threat because of climate change,” he added.
It is also important because there is a gap between the time it takes to build a renewable energy project and the time it takes to build the transmission to get those projects to market, he said.
Typically, the gap can be several years, which could stop many good renewable energy projects from being built because they could have no access to market.
Zichella also noted that the Obama administration is working on accelerating the permitting and construction of seven proposed electric transmission lines that cross 12 states, including Oregon, Wisconsin and New Jersey.
To develop projects successfully, transmission developers should reach out to the environmental community early on in the process, try to identify potential conflicts and participate in regional planning exercises. “[I]t’s very critical to take advantage of the … linear rights of way [that] already exist and the existing electrical infrastructure that already exists,” he added.
There are environmental and cultural challenges that need to be considered. “[I]n the western United States, so much land is public land [that] you have a rather large network of protected areas that the public feels very strongly about, whether it’s in a particular state or even nationally,” he said, adding that developers should reach out to environmental organizations as well as to Native American tribes and cultural protection organizations.
The environmental community, Zichella said, is going to be more interested in working with developers that are building lines for renewable energy resources and that are willing to work with them to avoid major environmental controversies.
“[Y]ou can avoid a lot of headaches by looking at it in the planning stages and avoiding the obvious impacts, but you still have work to do when you actually go to site [projects] because many things that aren’t apparent to you at the planning level become apparent to you at the siting level,” he said.
Zichella noted that there is nothing developers can do to avoid some local opposition to transmission lines because they will not have anything to do with environmental or cultural issues, but just individual concerns about their neighborhoods, or what some refer to as “not in my backyard,” or NIMBY, opposition.
“That’s why so many transmission line developers seek eminent domain because there are certain problems you just can’t settle, but I do think having the collaborative approach towards identifying solutions is always going to work better for them in terms of planning and siting,” he said.
Zichella also said that when it comes to climate change, there is a responsibility to help find solutions and that includes the difficult area of transmission. Transmission can face opposition, “let’s face it, but if you love renewables, you have to learn to like transmission at least a little,” he said.
NRDC is engaged in planning directly with WECC, Zichella said, adding that he is the environmental stakeholder on WECC’s Transmission Expansion Planning and Policy Committee. NRDC is also working on the DOE-funded regional transmission expansion project.
Case study: SunZia Southwest Transmission Project
Audubon and NRDC have worked on the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, which, according to TransmissionHub data, is being sponsored by a consortium of five companies: Southwestern Power Group II/MMR Group, Shell WindEnergy, and Tucson Electric Power, the three accounting for 86%; Salt River Project (13%), and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association (1%).
The project aims at promoting the development of wind, solar and geothermal energy and increasing reliability of the existing high voltage transmission systems in New Mexico and southern Arizona. The project will start at the new SunZia East substation in New Mexico and heads west, with significant portions running parallel to I-25 and the Rio Grande. The route follows a pipeline corridor north of I-10 in New Mexico and continues into Arizona, where it alternately uses existing pipeline and utility corridors where available before terminating at a new substation in Pinal County near Coolidge, Ariz. It is one of the seven projects chosen by the Obama administration’s rapid response pilot program.
Kreitler said the project was a model project from the perspective of creating early opportunities for stakeholder involvement.
Before the project was subject to environmental review, meetings and field trips were held and dialogue had begun on the pros and cons of route alternatives, she said. Because the area where the line was proposed included a wildlife refuge, a national conservation area, the Rio Grande and other high value natural resources, there were a number of significant environmental considerations. “Audubon has provided feedback on specific route segments that pose the greatest threat to species of conservation concern, suggested a preferable alternative route and identified mitigation measures that could lessen risk to endangered species likely to be affected by the project,” she added.
SunZia spokesperson Ian Calkins told TransmissionHub that from the earliest stages, SunZia reached out to environmental organizations to solicit input, share data including GIS data files and engage in meaningful discussions, adding that those discussions resulted in SunZia modifying its plans to avoid environmental sensitivities. “We remain open to engaging with the environmental community throughout the development process,” he said.
Calkins said it is important to engage with environmental groups because it enables developers to address issues early, rather than late in the process when it can be more problematic. In SunZia’s case, having support from the environmental community adds credibility to the project and acknowledges the renewable energy resources that the project proposes to access and deliver to customers, he said.
To develop projects successfully, companies like SunZia can engage with political, environmental and citizen groups early and often, he said, adding, “Nobody likes to be surprised.”
The environmental community is somewhat torn on transmission development, Calkins said, noting that most will acknowledge that more transmission capacity is needed in order to develop vast renewable energy resources. “Regardless, some remain opposed to any new transmission project,” Calkins said. “Knowing this sensitivity going in will help ensure better relations. Also, thorough compliance with federal and state permitting requirements that are designed to protect the environment should allow a project to be built in the least environmentally damaging location.”