Early attention to transmission saves project timelines

by Richard Zwolak, Golder Associates

It seemed like a good site for 25 MW of solar power. The land was low-cost, already disturbed and the solar resources were excellent, so the project proponents went ahead. Only when work was well under way did they take a serious look at the need to transmit power to the nearest substation with capacity–about 15 miles away.

It turned out that all the route options for the transmission lines had problems. One route, for example, would have run close to an airport, and transmission lines and aircraft do not mix well. Finding a way to get power to market caused delays in the project and the revenue stream and increased its costs.

Proponents of power projects such as this tend to focus on part of the project that is most critical to revenue: power generation. The need to transmit the power to market, however, gets attention too late, and this can turn what could have been a low-stress project into a costly, career-limiting learning experience.

Why the Need for Earlier Attention to Transmission?

Consider some of the trends that affect the power sector:

Distributed power. There is an increase in the number of smaller power sources ranging from rooftop-mounted solar to gas-fired merchant turbines, and these sources need a transmission line to get their products to market.

Renewables. Wind, solar, geothermal, landfill gas-to-energy and other renewables tend to be highly location-sensitive. There is no correlation between the best location for the generation facility and the location of a transmission line with capacity, unlike combustion turbine development, which has been located at the intersection of natural gas transmission pipelines and transmission lines.

Regulatory constraints. There are increasing restrictions on the sourcing of water supply and the disposal of effluent blowdown. In many jurisdictions there are tightening regulations designed to protect environmental variables. These factors further constrain the locations of power plants, so available locations might be less than ideal from a transmission perspective.

Macro corridor analysis results identity favorable, unfavorable and restricted areas for the placement of a new transmission line.

Plant retirements. Significant retirements of coal-fired generation assets have been announced in part because of the increasing restrictions. These retirements further the challenge of operating a stable, reliable grid.

Evaluation of options traversing through nationally protected water bodies, dense residential areas and historical areas.

Transmission technology. Advances in ac and dc transmission cables and installation are generating new alternatives when infrastructure options are being considered. Smart grid hardware and software applications are changing the existing and potential future supply and demand relationships among generators, transmission operators, load centers and end users.

Social media. Tools such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook allow stakeholders to work closely with nongovernmental organizations, quickly mounting opposition to planned projects, such as power transmission lines, often with misinformation. The result can be a loss of political and regulatory support, which could shut off options for transmission corridors.

Add to these considerations that land rights must be secured for the selected route from each property owner, and the challenges of project development become more critical than the power plant itself.

These trends make it increasingly likely that power projects will suffer delays and increased costs because of transmission challenges that could with appropriate planning.

Three Success Factors for Power Transmission

Our experience helping power producers manage design and permitting issues indicates three ways to reduce the chances of transmission problems, causing problems for power projects.

Desktop study first. Qualified and experienced specialists can warn of potential trouble spots along potential routes through an early-stage desktop study using computer-based information from public sources. In recent years there has been a tremendous increase in the amount of publicly available data–much of it based on satellite imagery and frequently refreshed to keep the information current. The images are more crisp and detailed than a few years ago, and this level of detail is available for an increasing amount of the earth’s surface.

Conducted early in the planning process, a desktop study can be a low-cost, quick way to determine if there are any serious deal breakers along a proposed route. The project proponent then has the option of selecting another route for the power plant before significant time, money or management energy has been invested.

Implementing quantitative and qualitative evaluations narrows down candidate route selection.

Start permitting process early.

Because of the time involved in obtaining regulatory approval for planned transmission routes, it is best to start the permitting process as early in the development as possible so permitting for the transmission line continues at the same time as the process for the generating plant.

In some cases, site-specific data is needed for avian species nests or land contamination, and it might take a year or more to compile the data required for an environmental assessment.

Regulators likely will have questions about report documents, and researching and preparing replies might stretch the timeline.

Provide enough time for stakeholder relations. Many project proponents, having experienced their share of confrontations at stakeholder meetings, might want to put off stakeholder engagement as long as possible.

The delay, however, often means louder opposition and more people who think their rights are being denied. If they are shown a detailed plan of the proposed route and asked to comment, they might think the project proponents are treating the engagement process as just a box to be ticked on a form. They might think the company is not interested in a genuine dialog that can help reduce impacts the project might have on their lives.

It is better to begin stakeholder engagement early.

One crucial reason is that the detailed, local information gathered as part of the process can help prevent many problems. For example, discussions with property owners might point to a bird nest, wetland or cultural resource that did not show up on the maps consulted in the desktop study stage. An early start to stakeholder engagement gives time for support for the project to develop and for proponents to learn what local interests might be willing to lend their support to the project, such as a local forestry company that is commissioned to maintain the right of way.

There is also more time to modify plans to satisfy local concerns. Paying attention to transmission issues early in planning can prevent delays, increased costs and damaged stakeholder relations to facilitate flow of revenue from the project.

New Information Technology Solutions for Transmission Planning

Several new technologies have come to the aid of power producers in planning transmission routes and for building better relations with stakeholders.

New geographic information systems (GIS) technology easily can combine maps and satellite imagery to prepare an overlay of data types, such as combining a map of vegetation types with a plan of a proposed transmission route.

This allows project proponents to uncover no-go areas and rank options for routes to see which warrant further study. Spatial variables can be assigned numerical values to accommodate ranking and quantify risk.

It is also possible to incorporate information gained during stakeholder engagement into the map, which helps show project proponents’ responsiveness to stakeholder concerns, or use to technology to provide property-specific impact assessments during project-sponsored events.

Visualization technology also can help build better relations with stakeholders. In years past, artists’ impressions of a planned project were hand-drawn, and incorporating changes was costly and time-consuming. In the hands of a skilled designer, graphic programs can use GIS information to develop a computer-generated image of a planned transmission line quickly and generate multiple views of the project along the route from any perspective.

Spatial data can support stakeholder engagement through determining who will be affected by a proposed project. At an open house, for example, an experienced designer can take a stakeholder’s address and enter it into the system to determine that dwelling’s distance to the project and help indicate whether there will be noise or visual impact.


Richard Zwolak is principal and Global Power sector leader for Golder Associates. Reach him at 813-769-5301 or richard_zwolak@golder.com.

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