Lessons Learned During Major Transmission Projects

By Steven M. Brown, editor in chief

In steady decline since the mid-1970s, investment in the high-voltage equipment used to move power from generating plants to the distribution system looks to finally be back on the upswing. In a study published in May 2005, The Edison Electric Institute (EEI) reported that the power industry “has reversed a long-standing downward trend in transmission investment.”

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In its “EEI Survey of Transmission Investment: Historical and Planned Capital Expenditures (1999-2008),” EEI sought to collect information from 70 companies representing both investor-owned utilities (IOUs) and stand-alone transmission companies. The findings of that survey indicate that both traditionally integrated utilities and stand-alone transmission companies are finally increasing investments in transmission. Transmission investment, measured in constant dollars, declined from 1975 to 1998, but EEI found that IOUs increased their annual transmission investments from 1999-2003 by 12 percent annually, totaling nearly $18 billion for the five-year period.

Going forward, the outlook is even brighter, as IOUs are planning to invest $28 billion in transmission infrastructure from 2004-2008-a 60 percent increase over the earlier five-year period. If the projected increase comes to pass, it would result in a level of transmission investment not seen in nearly 30 years.

With all that investment planned, and after having experienced such a long dearth of investment in transmission, the power industry may find itself experiencing some growing pains going forward. Presented here are some of the lessons learned during the course of two major transmission-improvement projects-one recently completed and one about halfway done.

Wisconsin is Re-introduced to Transmission Work

American Transmission Co. (ATC) is right at the midpoint of a 220-mile transmission line project that will eventually connect Minnesota Power’s Arrowhead substation near Duluth, Minn., with Wisconsin Public Service’s Weston power plant and substation near Wausau, Wis.

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Mark Williamson, ATC’s vice president of major projects, noted that no major transmission infrastructure has been built in Wisconsin since the early 1970s. The Arrowhead-Weston line is necessary for grid stabilization and to increase Wisconsin’s power import capability. The project was announced by Wisconsin Public Service and Minnesota Power in 1999. ATC, a multi-state standalone transmission company, came on board in mid-2001 as a co-sponsor and will ultimately own, operate and maintain the Arrowhead-Weston line.

Williamson reported that the Minnesota portion of the line-about 12 miles of the 220-mile project-was essentially complete at the time of this writing and that construction on the longer Wisconsin part of the line would begin in August. ATC expects completion of the line by 2008. That 2008 deadline, Williamson noted, is a “critical deadline.” The power generating plant at Weston is due for completion in June 2008, and the Arrowhead-Weston line is necessary to move power out of the plant.

“You hate to have an $800 million investment sitting around that you can’t turn on,” Williamson said, referring to the power plant at the Weston end of the line.

Information Campaigns

Since it had been such a long time since any new transmission was built in Wisconsin, the Arrowhead-Weston project did not commence without some obstacles. Williamson noted one particularly persistent group of interveners has raised opposition to the project and that some public land owners have also taken issue. He said that pending legislation would likely clear up those issues by giving the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin “paramount siting authority.”

“This is one of about seven major projects for us over the next five to seven years,” Williamson said. “We can’t spend years figuring out where to site these projects, then have subordinate units of government tell us “˜no thanks.'”

He said that one of the most important first steps in any large transmission project is to go out and get the public involved early, so as to avoid appeals and litigation when it comes time to build.

Williamson said that the old, traditional way of building new lines was to go to the commission, get the order and then tell people it’s coming.

“People don’t appreciate that,” he said. “They’d rather know it’s coming before you have all the permits in-hand and are telling them it’s a fait accompli.

To minimize impact on the land, helicopters were used extensively in Path 15 construction.
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“Our advice is to get out early and often and involve people in the process,” Williamson said. “We try to involve them as much as two years before we even file an application at the commission. We truly engage them in the siting process. We have open houses, breakfast meetings. We treat it almost like a political campaign. We tell people what this is all about, why it’s needed, what their rights and options are. You don’t get 100 percent of people on board, but you can really get most of them once they understand why you need to build the infrastructure.

“One of the things we remind people is that their lights are on because someone hosted a transmission line somewhere in this state just for them,” Williamson continued. “If you give people a chance to understand that, they usually come to grips without a lot of controversy.”

Besides holding open houses and other meetings, ATC regularly published project-specific newsletters and developed a website (www.arrowhead-weston.com) specifically dedicated to the Arrowhead-Weston project as part of its information campaign. The website provides a means for ATC to further educate the public on the benefits of the project, as well as their property rights. The website has proved itself a valuable tool for both ATC and those affected by the line’s construction.

“Our development of a standalone website was indicative of the number of questions we received from the public,” said Maripat Blankenheim, ATC’s manager of corporate communications. “The bulk of people really just want information. The Internet allows us to get it to them without their having to call in.”

Participants in another major transmission project-the recently completed Path 15 project in California-also saw benefits from mounting an information campaign and educating the public about the project’s benefits. A joint effort between the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), Trans-Elect and Pacific Gas & Electric, the Path 15 project eliminated a longstanding transmission bottleneck that many attributed as a major factor in the California energy crisis of 2000 and 2001.

Due to the amount of news generated from California’s rolling blackouts and high electricity rates in 2000 and 2001, Path 15 may have been the famous transmission bottleneck-and, consequently, the most famous transmission upgrade project-on record. Tom Boyko, the Path 15 project manager at WAPA, said that the amount of press surrounding Path 15 probably helped mitigate the public opposition that similar transmission projects often encounter.

“The media coverage provided a valuable service by helping to educate people both within and outside the industry about the merits of the project,” Boyko said. “With the exposure, not only were there few detractors on the need to construct, generally people understood the importance of the project.”

The additional transmission capacity created by the Path 15 upgrade should “significantly reduce electricity costs in California, saving approximately $100 million per year in normal conditions, and more than $300 million during dry years when Path 15 helps mitigate the lack of hydroelectric resources in Northern California,” according to economic studies completed by the California ISO.

Engineering Challenges

Major transmission projects like Path 15 and Arrowhead-Weston also pose myriad engineering challenges. One of the major challenges can be trying to build a line while minimizing environmental impact.

WAPA’s Boyko noted that the Path 15 project was fairly benign environmentally. Most of the ground covered by the project was cattle grazing land, and the line generally doesn’t pass through populated areas. He did note, however, that some of the line runs through fruit orchards and that engineers were careful to use poles instead of lattice structures to minimize the line’s footprint in the orchard areas. Helicopters were also used extensively during construction on the Path 15 project-both to speed up the project and to lower construction’s impact on the land.

ATC’s Williamson said that the preparation work that is done before construction can be the hardest part of a large transmission project. He noted that this is particularly the case in Wisconsin and other parts of the upper Midwest where lines-like the Arrowhead-Weston line-must cross wetlands and other waterways. Rules pertaining to wetland use and waterway crossing are very strict, and engineers must find a way to comply with those rules.

“In the bogs and swampland, you have to do a lot of engineering on foundations,” Williamson said. “The regulators are worried about what kind of holes you’re going to punch in their wetland. That really takes the most time. Once you get those rules worked out and the contractors are educated on the protocols to protect these areas, construction becomes less of a challenge.”

At the time of this writing, ATC was in the final stages of wetland waterway permitting for its Arrowhead-Weston work.

Williamson had one other piece of advice for those planning large transmission projects. Given 30 years of under-investment in transmission, it’s a piece of advice many IOUs and independent transmission companies would do well to heed.

“Don’t underestimate the complexity of long projects,” Williamson said. “The original approach was, “˜Gee, we did a lot of 10-mile projects. This must be just like 20 of those.’ It’s not. The complexity of a 220-mile project is much more than the sum of 20 10-mile projects.”ï£ï£

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