A Different Approach: Routing and Siting from the Electric Transmission Perspective
November 13, 2019
By Anastacia Santos
Project Manager, Environmental Division
This article was originally published in Currents, POWER’s quarterly Environmental newsletter.
The natural gas pipeline industry is constantly changing. Gone are the days of straight-line routes with limited agency or public involvement.
Today there are federal, state and local agency regulations and guidelines to ensure environmentally responsible and safe construction and operation of natural gas projects. And the public is demanding more transparency and involvement at every stage of the project.
With all the changes in the natural gas industry and increasing public concern, is a smoother permitting process possible?
Four Ways to Avoid Delays
Despite the obvious difference of “above ground” versus “below ground,” the electric transmission and natural gas industries share many similarities.
Both develop linear projects that include right-of-way easements, access roads, construction yards and station sites. Their projects require permits from many of the same federal, state and local agencies. And both industries have experienced increased public scrutiny over the last decade.
But for some recent natural gas projects, schedule delays have resulted in lost time and money. The reasons range from unforeseen permitting issues and last-minute changes to heavy public opposition.
Most of these project delays could be avoided by using a few project approaches routinely used in the electric transmission line industry.
Build an Integrated Team
The first approach to a smoother project is to build an integrated team from day one. Beginning with the kick-off meeting and throughout the planning process, include engineering, regulatory, environmental, construction and land acquisition representatives. Some companies have these disciplines in-house. If not, consider using a subcontractor to fill that role.
Any change can dramatically affect the schedule and add additional tasks to all disciplines. By integrating the team from the beginning, each member can evaluate how the change affects permitting, schedule and budget.
Take for instance a simple engineering modification that moves a route 75 feet to the north. Depending on the stage of the project, the engineering team would need to update drawings and workspace; the regulatory team would need to evaluate the modification if any legal applications had already been filed; the environmental team would need to re-evaluate and adjust any permitting; and the land acquisition team would need to determine if the modification would involve new landowners.
The goal is open communication. Each discipline must voice the implications of changes to the team before proceeding.
Explore Multiple Routing and Siting Options
Even though the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, that line is not always the best route. The second approach is to explore multiple routing and siting options. The public is interested not only in the route selected for the project, but also the routes you consider and eliminate as options.
Establish a study area large enough for a set of geographically diverse routing and siting options. Then evaluate the area for sensitive resources and areas of siting opportunities. These could be existing overhead transmission and communication lines, federal and local designated utility corridors, existing interstate and state highways, pipelines, railroads or areas with industrial development.
By developing multiple routing and siting options, the project team can evaluate potential resource and permitting issues in the area prior to selecting a final route. Rather than the straightest line, you’ll end up with the smoothest path through permitting.
Host the Open House Early
The third project approach is to change the timing of open house meetings. The open house is a time for the public to get acquainted with the project and to provide their input on how it is being developed.
For natural gas pipeline projects regulated under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), open house meetings typically occur later in the routing process, once a “preferred” route has already been identified.
In the electric transmission industry, open house meetings typically occur during the routing process when multiple routes are still being considered. This allows stakeholders to provide feedback and help shape which route will be selected for development.
Hosting the open house earlier gives the public more input in the route selection and ultimately results in better communication and better decision-making.
Document All Considered Routes
The final approach worth considering from the electric transmission industry is documenting the routing methodology and analysis as it occurs.
FERC applications require a robust alternatives analysis. As routes are considered, document them in detail—even if the integrated team has not been assembled.
Many natural gas alternative sections are pieced together with emails from engineering, environmental, system design and land acquisition long after a route has been selected and somewhere in the middle of developing an application.
Documenting all the routing options explored, no matter how small, demonstrates to FERC and the public that you have done your homework. It also means that the alternatives section is almost complete before you even start working on the FERC application.
Save Time and Money
Now, imagine your next project. You put together an integrated team that provides input on the study area. You develop alternatives using a multiple routing and siting approach. You include the public during the routing process. And you document each step along the way.
Does it always function this well for electric transmission line projects? Definitely not, but when it does, it saves a considerable amount of time and money.
So, at the start of your next natural gas project, why not consider a different approach? It might help your project run a lot more smoothly.
Anastacia is an experienced Project Manager in siting, licensing and environmental permitting of large energy-related capital development and compliance initiatives. Her nearly 10 year career has focused on regulated onshore natural gas pipeline and electric transmission projects from feasibility and initial routing design through construction. She has managed the preparation of numerous environmental documents including the NEPA Environmental Impact Assessments, Environmental Impact Statements, and FERC environmental reports. She has obtained numerous environmental permits/clearances in compliance with the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act. Do you have questions for Anastacia? Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.