Center for Rural Affairs: Open houses, education help in potential clashes between communities, transmission developers

When it comes to potential clashes between communities and transmission line developers, one of the easiest recommendations for developers to implement is to increase the frequency of open houses and public meetings, according to the Center for Rural Affairs.

“Developer open houses present a prime opportunity to not just educate stakeholders on a specific project, but to also answer questions and address concerns at a personal level,” according to the report, “From the ground up: addressing key community concerns in clean energy transmission,” by the Center for Rural Affairs and Lu Nelsen, energy policy associate at the center, released on Jan. 8.

According to its website, the Center for Rural Affairs is a private nonprofit specializing in strengthening small business, rural communities as well as family farms and ranches.

In the report, local media reports focusing on transmission projects and the reactions of community members to those projects were gathered from several states.

The center also noted in its report that analysis of those sources identified six common issues that surround transmission development in each case: agriculture, conservation, health, eminent domain, need and fairness.

The sample was narrowed to 100 discrete media pieces, examining 14 different transmission projects, including Monticello-St. Cloud, Grain Belt Express and Badger Coulee.

According to TransmissionHub data, the 30-mile, 345-kV Monticello-St. Cloud double circuit line was placed into service in December 2011. The project is part of CapX2020, and the utilities involved in that initiative include Xcel Energy (NYSE:XEL), Otter Tail Power and Dairyland Power Cooperative, among others.

Clean Line Energy Partners’ 550-mile, 600-kV, $2.2bn Grain Belt Express Clean Line project received approval from the Kansas Corporation Commission in December 2011.

Clean Line’s primary owners are ZAM Ventures LP and National Grid USA subsidiary GridAmerica Holdings. National Grid is a subsidiary of National Grid plc.

TransmissionHub data also notes that the anticipated final decision from Wisconsin state regulators on American Transmission Company’s 345-kV Badger Coulee project is anticipated this year, which would mean construction would begin in 2016 and the project would be energized in 2018.

In discussing its recommendations, the center noted in its report that outreach can continue once the official open house period has ended. Improving the online presence of projects is an easy step for developers, the center added, noting that many transmission projects have websites that list out-of-date information as the top links in their news sections, or list substandard or inaccessible information.

An example of a project that presents a clean and interactive design for users is the site for the Big Stone South to Ellendale project, which is being developed by Otter Tail Power and Xcel Energy, the center added.

Developers can also mirror the actions of advocates in providing fact sheets on the regulatory process that is required by the state.

Developers can also use other approaches to address concerns from communities and landowners. For instance, Clean Line Energy Partners have signed an agreement with the Illinois Department of Agriculture to mitigate certain impacts that construction may have on agricultural land. In that case, the company agreed to use monopole structures to minimize land taken out of production, and to limit the impact to soil and drainage systems.

Also, using information gathered from communities and landowners, developers can form lists of locations that they should try to avoid when siting a line, which can make it easier to mitigate impacts to local areas of importance during the siting and construction process.

“A stronger dialogue with communities and landowners will help developers better understand specific conservation concerns,” the center added.

On health, the center noted that perhaps the only way to mitigate concerns over health effects is to make a concerted effort during siting to keep a line as far from residences as possible.

The center also discussed compensation, noting that given the fact that voluntary acquisition is one of the best ways to belay concerns over the use of eminent domain, it is in the developers’ interest to make easement agreements as appealing as possible to landowners. Clean Line Energy Partners, for instance, is trying to make its easement agreements more appealing by providing the option for landowners to receive annual payments instead of a single lump sum.

Educating landowners on when eminent domain is used, and how the process works would help alleviate some of the anxiety inherent in the process, the center added.

Possible steps include publicly posting a standardized easement agreement for stakeholders to read through and analyze, as well as group negotiations with several stakeholders.

The center also noted that localizing benefits of a transmission line can be a difficult task, particularly if the developer is not in need of any materials or services that a community can provide. Showing how upgraded transmission can affect consumers’ rates and reliability may be a good tact for developers, the center said.

“In order to improve the transmission system in the Midwest and across the country, it is vital that developers and advocates confront the concerns of those affected,” Nelsen said in a Jan. 8 statement. “Infrastructure is important, but it is essential that it be done in partnership with communities.”

The center noted in its report that the nation’s most abundant wind resources reside in the remote regions of the upper Midwest and Great Plains. Those lightly populated areas require only a small amount of electricity, making it imperative that new transmission infrastructure be put in place to move that energy from where it is produced to where it is needed most.

In 2012, the center added, the United States installed more than 13 GW of new wind projects. At the same time, investments in transmission infrastructure continue to lag, remaining the single biggest impediment to further industry growth, the center said.

About Corina Rivera-Linares 3152 Articles
Corina Rivera-Linares, chief editor for TransmissionHub, has covered the U.S. power industry for the past 15 years. Before joining TransmissionHub, Corina covered renewable energy and environmental issues, as well as transmission, generation, regulation, legislation and ISO/RTO matters at SNL Financial. She has also covered such topics as health, politics, and education for weekly newspapers and national magazines. She can be reached at clinares@endeavorb2b.com.