In permitting, developers work around cultural sensitivities, regional coordination challenges

While fictional Port Angeles, Wash., residents were dealing with a perpetually adolescent vampire in the book and movie, Twilight, not too long ago, Boundless Energy on a Port Angeles beach was confronting a real-life curiosity: the unearthing of 300 whole skeletons.

Though the unearthing was related to an effort by the state, it affected the area through which a project that Boundless Energy was undertaking would run, CEO E. John Tompkins said on Oct. 29 during the “Big East Projects” panel, part of TransmissionHub’s TransForum East in Washington, D.C.

The state found the bones and determined they were animal bones, but a group of Native Americans, through DNA testing, found out they were human bones belonging to their ancestors.

“I think this is the most important part of any project – do your homework, do your archaeology, do all of your interaction with the community,” Tompkins said. “It’s really important because when they unearthed the 300 whole skeletons, everything on the northern shore of the Olympic Peninsula came to a screeching halt.”

Boundless Energy met with the Native Americans, presented its own archaeological study, made them aware of its cultural sensitivity and ultimately received its project permit, he said.

Boundless Energy, in concert with Sea Breeze Power, has developed the international Juan De Fuca Cable Project, a 550 MW HVDC submarine cable and converter system linking Port Angeles and Victoria, British Columbia.

Boundless Energy was also the original developer of the Neptune Regional Transmission System’s high voltage DC cable connecting PJM Interconnection with Long Island, N.Y.

Efforts continue in New York on the company’s proposed Leeds Path West AC transmission project, which, as the company said in an Oct. 1 filing with New York state regulators in response to the state Energy Highway initiative, would provide in excess of 1,000 MW of transmission capacity using new 345-kV lines in existing transmission corridors to connect clean energy sources in upstate New York with southeastern New York.

Tompkins said the company has had success with all of its permitting efforts thus far, noting, “Learning the cultural sensibilities of the indigenous people in this country, or in any country, is important.”

Developers must constantly communicate with the public and regulators, he said, adding, “[I]f you don’t control the message, somebody else will.”

The company’s experience is echoed around the country, as transmission developers encounter cultural sensitivities and negotiate local relationships.

Tribal artifacts a challenge for National Grid 

Rudy Wynter, president, FERC regulated business, with National Grid plc subsidiary National Grid USA, said that the company, in working on its New England East-West Solutions (NEEWS) family of projects, has encountered challenges involving tribal artifacts.

During project construction, tribal artifacts as well as some tribal ceremonial stone landscapes that were set up by the Narragansett tribe were discovered, he said.

“[W]orking with the tribe, working with the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as a number of other stakeholders, we had to protect and catalogue all the artifacts, but also protect and leave in place all the ceremonial stone landscaping that we found,” he said. “We were successful in doing that.”

The company has about 8,000 miles of transmission and 4,000 MW of generation in the United States. 

Other challenges associated with NEEWS involve the regional needs analysis, he said, noting that the analysis was done about nine or 10 years ago and in that time, a host of generation retirements and load changes have occurred, requiring the company and the ISO to do numerous studies as National Grid, along with Northeast Utilities (NYSE:NU) went through the siting process.

Another challenge involved coordinating efforts across the three states – Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts: whereas some siting boards wanted to focus on undergrounding, for instance, others wanted to focus on non-transmission alternatives.

The project is constructed in Connecticut for the most part and in Rhode Island, while the siting process is wrapping up in Massachusetts.

“[T]hroughout the whole project, we had to be proactive and innovative with our outreach and communication,” he said, adding that the process included numerous town hall meetings, meetings with stakeholders, face-to-face meetings with landowners and an active presence in social media.

“I think that’s really the shape of things to come in the future,” Wynter said.

AEP’s encounter with ‘Yosemite Sam’-type character

Lisa Barton, executive vice president – AEP Transmission, agreed with the need for effective communication, saying that the Internet and social media are changing the way utilities have to respond to and communicate with customers.

“[O]ne of the things that we have been doing is really heightening our focus on improving communications and the quality of information,” she said.

The company is in the process of revamping its project website to include visualization tools through which residents will be able to see how their homes will be affected by the line as well as the different routes that the line may take.

Barton noted that siting remains a challenge and while the company takes less than 1% of the land that it needs for transmission through eminent domain, it is still a challenge when putting projects together.

For example, in Arkansas, the company came across “some disturbing cartoons” in the local paper in which a “Yosemite Sam”-type character basically threatened to shoot utility workers who came on to the land.

In another instance, a sign put up on a safari park noted that if customers did not want AEP to condemn the park – which would not have been the case as the matter involved a fairly small right-of-way acquisition, Barton said – they should call a phone number, which turned out to be the phone number for American Electric Power’s (NYSE:AEP) CEO Nick Akins.

“[I]t’s an interesting business,” she said of transmission, adding, “[I]t’s an exciting place to be in this business, it really is, but it certainly has a lot of challenges, it’s not for the faint of heart.”

AEP Transmission serves as a master service provider to all of its operating companies and its joint ventures include Electric Transmission Texas (ETT). The company is currently building projects in 13 states and has transmission assets in PJM Interconnection, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and the Southwest Power Pool (SPP).

She highlighted four projects associated with the competitive renewable energy zone (CREZ) build-out in Texas. “There, we have about 450 miles of double-circuit 345- and 178 miles of 138-kV,” she added, noting that entails a logistical challenge in coordinating all of that, which, among other things, involves thousands of tons of steel.

Another challenge is the tight labor market in Texas, in which AEP has four utilities building projects: ETT, Southwestern Electric Power (SWEPCO), AEP Texas North and AEP Texas Central.

“[W]e have been very reliant on good partnerships with our contractors … to make sure we’ve got that labor resource in place where it needs to be,” she added.

DATC: Cooperation is key

Speaking about the work done on the Pioneer transmission project in Indiana, Phillip Grigsby, president of Duke-American Transmission Company (DATC), said that it quickly became apparent that cooperation is key, not only with regulators and policy makers, but with other utilities as well.

“[W]e found in our Pioneer project, in the early phase of siting and permitting, that being able to learn from each other on best practices, being able to piggyback process[es] and procedures that were put in place successfully in a similar region, recognizing regional differences and cultural sensitivities, has been very key to the success that we’ve had so far in those efforts,” he said.

The project is owned by Pioneer Transmission, a joint venture of AEP and Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK). The 240-mile, 765-kV Midwest ISO (MISO) multi-value project in Indiana would extend from Duke’s Greentown substation and end at AEP’s Rockport substation near Evansville, according to TransmissionHub data.

Duke and AEP in 2008 proposed the project, which was then granted FERC rate authority. The company worked on getting the project analyzed in MISO and PJM as a unique cross-border project, Grigsby said, adding that given Duke and AEP’s engineering and permitting “prowess,” it was expected for the project to get the green light quite quickly, despite the fact that the process was not set up to really evaluate that kind of project.

It was then decided to tackle the process one RTO at a time and the company was successful in getting MISO to adopt the project as an MVP, he said, noting that that is the part of the project being jointly developed with NiSource’s (NYSE:NI) Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO). MISO gave the project the green light at the end of 2011, which led to the eventually successful process of being recognized as a public utility in Indiana.

“[F]or us, it’s really [about] getting through those policy and planning issues with the RTOs,” he said, noting that the company is working on finding solutions to such challenges as working in both organized and unorganized markets.

About Corina Rivera-Linares 3286 Articles
Corina Rivera-Linares was TransmissionHub’s chief editor until August 2021, as well as part of the team that established TransmissionHub in 2011. Before joining TransmissionHub, Corina covered renewable energy and environmental issues, as well as transmission, generation, regulation, legislation and ISO/RTO matters at SNL Financial from 2005 to 2011. She has also covered such topics as health, politics, and education for weekly newspapers and national magazines.