Our Insights

7 Ways to Minimize Schedule and Budget Risks from Environmental Requirements

April 10, 2018

This article originally published on ENR.com in April, 2018.

By Ronald J. Carrington, PE, and J. Richard Stoker, PE

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Most transmission projects of any significance face risks to schedules and budgets at every step—from feasibility, siting, permitting and design to construction and operation.

For major projects, utilities and developers are often faced with permitting processes that take years to complete at a cost of millions of dollars. These excessive costs and time periods for permitting alone have the potential to jeopardize project success.

With thoughtful leadership and teamwork, it is possible to reduce these risks with some relatively simple adjustments to the way we approach projects. When project teams bring their diverse expertise together to think holistically and collaborate as an integrated team, they’re likely to develop solutions with better outcomes.

Here are seven methods that can be used by project teams to minimize schedule and budget risks.

  1. Conduct fatal flaw analysis to identify deal breakers

Often projects are initiated without looking at the critical issues the project is facing. Conducting a fatal flaw analysis, sometimes called critical issues analysis (CIA), can often avoid the pitfalls that can turn a good-on-paper route into a one that jeopardizes the project.

For example, one project brought together many disciplines right away for the feasibility study. They collaborated on a fatal flaw analysis for a new double-circuit 138 kV line and substation. The team included engineers, substation designers, SCADA experts, public involvement specialists and environmental professionals.

As a result, the team presented the client with a preferred route very different from the initial concept. The route was relatively free of obstacles and minimized effects on the environment, land use, cultural resources and water resources, while also weighing access road design, constructability, engineering and cost.


  1. Develop and implement a stakeholder outreach plan early to address public concerns

By engaging the public upfront, you can consider their concerns in the design along with other environmental constraints. This is far more effective than allowing them to become major roadblocks after the route is set.

Such an approach resulted in successful public outreach to more than 1,100 stakeholders for a 230 kV transmission line that stretched for 60 miles and included a 2,800-foot-long crossing of a major river.

With multiple route options on the table, the team collected comments with a GIS-based tool and used the concerns to develop a robust communication plan. Through public meetings, a mail campaign and social media, the team demonstrated how public input along with environmental constraints had been considered to select the best option. Photo simulations and viewshed modeling were used to support the analysis.


  1. Include engineers in siting and permitting to evaluate mitigation and constructability

Transmission facilities can be built almost anywhere, and a straight line is not always the least expensive or quickest to construct. The engineer is in a unique position to evaluate siting options, consider facility design, constructability, implementation of mitigation and cost, and arrive at a practical solution.

On one project, the client wanted a new 138 kV line to cross a road, but it would have to go under the low-sag point of an existing 500 kV line. A siting team of engineers, environmental professionals, public involvement specialists, land agents, and construction managers worked together to identify a preferred route. They demonstrated that the client’s chosen route would require rebuilding two structures on the 500 kV line and an outage on an interconnect transmission line.

As a result, the client was able to choose an alternative route that was much less costly.


  1. Design around environmental constraints to avoid costly mitigation measures

Avoiding sensitive environmental areas in the design stage of a project reduces risk for potential mitigation that affects schedule and costs. Examples of factors include land ownership, protected species habitat, competing land uses and constructability.

Once constraints are identified in the feasibility stage, the routing team can design alternatives that are easier to permit and construct. By condensing the overall timeline of the project, they are also less expensive.

On a 500 kV project in the intermountain west, a sensitive species habitat was identified. The engineer played a critical role to determine structure types, span lengths and access roads to enable routing through the area.


  1. Include seasonal restrictions and agency timelines in your schedule to minimize delays

Agency resource specialists are not concerned with the project timeline; their main focus is the protection of the resources in their mandate.

As soon as sensitive or protected species are identified, they should be factored into the project schedule. Once construction begins, it’s too late to plan around the often narrow windows of time to survey sensitive species.

For example, if your construction is planned for March through June and the species can only be surveyed July and August, your project is now six months behind schedule. Putting seasonal restrictions into the schedule and accounting for processing time for permit applications will reduce factors that can put the project way behind schedule.

Go a step further and combine environmental, engineering and construction timelines in a single, linear schedule. This allows teams to visualize how environmental constraints affect the schedule and identify potential conflicts before they become an issue.


  1. Work together throughout construction to quickly address permitting roadblocks

Construction teams face so many details daily that the nuances of permits and field conditions can be easy to overlook. Often, the environmental project manager is only called after a problem develops.

Think holistically to take a more proactive approach that heads off problems before they compound. For one major program with multiple transmission line projects, the team decided to include the environmental project manager on all project calls. Sometimes, there were no issues. But when something came up, it could be addressed immediately.

Keeping communication lines open helped assure there were no issues affecting the schedule progress.


  1. Clearly communicate environmental commitments to assure compliance during construction

Construction managers cannot be held accountable for what they don’t know. Major projects have multiple permit conditions and impact mitigation commitments to resource agencies and landowners that are tied to parcels on the project footprint. Developing clear communication tools helps the construction team know what commitments were made to third parties.

One method that has proved invaluable time and again is to develop a comprehensive environmental permit book. This well-documented summary of the environmental permits and agency correspondence helps the construction team stay in compliance.

Integrated teams lead to successful project outcomes

By thinking holistically and integrating multi-disciplinary project teams throughout all stages of a project, communication and collaboration improve. This leads to rapidly identifying and resolving issues. When engineers, environmental resource specialists and other experts team up, they can:

All these achievements are possible while still meeting the commercial and economic needs for the project.

Want to remember the 7 ways? Download this handy reference guide

Want to remember the 7 ways? Download this handy reference guide.

Ronald J. Carrington is a Project Director at POWER Engineers. He is a registered Professional Engineer.
J. Richard Stoker is an Environmental Services Manager at POWER Engineers and a registered Professional Engineer and registered landscape architect.