utilities can turn adversaries into advocates on infrastructure projects

Finding solutions for utility infrastructure used to be about having the utility’s engineering and government affairs staffs determine what needed to be built, filing a permit request, and holding enough public meetings to satisfy minimum notice requirements. Today, that simply isn’t enough. Utilities must be willing to engage the public in a proactive manner if they truly expect to find creative, cost-effective solutions to an overburdened system.

Fortunately, there are sound methods utilities can use to collaborate with, rather than fight against, affected communities.

engaging the public

Transmission assets are critical to the overall reliability and economic efficiency of an electric system, yet in the 1990s investment in this sector of the power business lagged even as electric demand grew. Edison Electric Institute (EEI) estimates that while load grew at an average rate of more than 2 percent per year, transmission infrastructure improvements had a meager growth rate of only 0.5 percent per year.

As a result, in many regions of the United States the need for some kind of investment in the infrastructure-with the attendant need to engage the public-is rising dramatically. In the past, utilities generally shied away from involving the public in decisions related to infrastructure projects. Their reluctance to embrace the public is quite understandable. Mistrust has developed over the years, caused oftentimes by the promulgation of misinformation by community activists, government regulators, the media, and the utilities themselves.

Traditionally, utilities employed a public engagement process for major projects that went something like this: The utility performs the necessary studies to determine what facility upgrades are necessary and where the new facilities will be sited. Once an internal decision is made, the utility engages the public through a two-hour town hall meeting format, soliciting input from the affected communities. The utility receives a strong negative reaction, leaving the utility to battle the public in the regulatory arena, or worse yet, canceling the project in its entirety. This can cost the utility millions of dollars while damaging relations with its communities. In fact, for many utilities the feeling has been that the risk of gaining public acceptance has outweighed the project’s potential economic benefits. Why chase after 11 percent equity returns on new projects with high risk when you are already earning that level of return on your existing investments?

Why does the community often react so negatively to the projects? Certainly there is a visceral, “not in my back yard” reaction, but in our view there are fundamental flaws in the process itself. The utility often engages the public after having made the major decisions that will affect the community, such as having the path for the transmission line already secured. Another problem is the town hall meeting format: it often draws those who are most in opposition to the utility. And finally, the public has a limited knowledge of how a utility system works. Some people literally think their house meter generates the electricity powering their home. A two-hour town hall or open house is just not enough time to educate the public on the realities of utility operations and to build the case for the project.

trying a different approach in Vermont

In Vermont, a section of transmission line known as the “Southern Loop” spans 66 miles between Bennington and Brattleboro. Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS) engineering models indicate that if no additional investments are made to improve the Southern Loop, as little as 5 percent growth in electric demand may exceed the physical capability of the Southern Loop transmission line to deliver power to all customers during times of peak electric demand.

CVPS and the Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO), which owns and operates the transmission system, decided to use an innovative public outreach process instead of the old standard way.

To address the deficiencies of traditional outreach, they used an approach called the Utility Search Conference process. It is based on the internationally renowned “Search Conference,” a community planning methodology originally developed in the 1960s. The process provides a much higher degree of control for the utility than traditional outreach while at the same time building unprecedented rapport and mutual trust between the utility and its usual “adversaries.”

The process begins with two critical teams. The first team is the utility’s internal project team consisting of six members representing the engineering, government affairs and community relations issues associated with the planned project. The second team is a leadership team made up of approximately 10 individuals, including two utility representatives and members of key political, business and community activist groups. The invitation to serve on the leadership team comes directly from a utility’s president or C-level officer (CEO or COO) to emphasize the project’s importance and the desire to have a meaningful public engagement process.

At its initial meeting, the leadership team is given an overview of the technical problem by members of the utility project team and are encouraged to “kick the tires” on the utility’s analysis of the problem. Though most utilities are reluctant to allow “outsiders” to critique their assessment of the problem, this exercise actually strengthens the utility’s ability to implement the project by identifying potential problem areas well in advance of any public meeting. Perhaps even more importantly, this exercise lays the groundwork for educating and building trust and “buy-in” among the stakeholder groups that will be involved as the project unfolds.

the “Southern Loop” utility search conference

The Southern Loop Utility Search Conference was convened in Brattleboro in January 2006 for the purpose of identifying recommendations to the following Problem Statement:

“Southern Vermont electrical transmission facilities have limited ability to support increased electrical demand and are unable to withstand failures of, or to have preventive maintenance conducted on, key components at present demand levels. The reliability of the regional bulk transmission system that connects southern Vermont, southwestern New Hampshire and northwest Massachusetts is at risk at existing demand levels, with increasing reliability risk as regional electrical demand levels increase.”

At the outset participants were gathered in a single large group so that they could get to know one another, talk about worldwide and regional issues and identify the key historical events that had contributed to the Problem Statement.

While differences of opinion were clearly evident, these early group activities made participants realize they all shared a common history and a strong desire to make southern Vermont an even better place to live and work. This alone was a breakthrough, as “opposing” stakeholder representatives visibly became more open to alternative points of view.

For the remainder of the process, stakeholders were divided into mixed groups. Several small groups were asked to identify life in their community if no action were taken concerning the Problem Statement; several others were asked what the most desirable condition would look like for southern Vermont if the Problem Statement were resolved. Back in the large group these statements were compared, consolidated and formulated into two consensus statements, a “Most Probable Future” statement and a “Most Desirable Future” statement.

Back in their small mixed groups, participants then tackled the thorny questions related to how they could work together as a community to bring about the “Most Desirable Future.” Periodically, everyone gathered in the large room to report what they had decided in their small groups, until consensus was reached. Unanimity was not and cannot be the goal.

In this manner participants developed a shared vision for their community relative to the Problem Statement. More importantly, the stakeholder groups had identified several nonbinding recommendations for VELCO and CVPS to consider for resolving the Problem Statement, including agreement among stakeholders that a synchronous condenser should be installed as soon as possible along the Loop (CVPS’s proposed interim solution) and that one of two possible transmission lines should be installed to help stabilize Vermont’s electrical grid (VELCO’s proposed solution). Additionally, the group recommended that several steps be taken to improve opportunities for public involvement in statewide electric transmission planning and policy matters.

To underscore the value that VELCO and CVPS placed on the hard work conducted by the group, VELCO CEO John Donleavy and CVPS CEO Bob Young attended the final session and stated publicly, to the entire conference, the degree to which the companies would commit to each recommendation. This was an exceptionally powerful moment and one that was unheard of prior to this conference.

At the conclusion of the Southern Loop Utility Search Conference, 20 individuals signed up to serve on a Community Working Group (CWG) that will pursue each agreed-upon recommendation to its logical conclusion. This could mean that some recommendations will be tabled while others move forward to the permitting stage. CWG members (and others) will be able to speak knowledgably about why the particular recommendation should be implemented.

surprising results

While the CWG’s work in southern Vermont is still ongoing, the level of cooperation among stakeholder groups is unprecedented and is consistent with the results achieved in other parts of the country through this process.

Significantly, in every case where the Utility Search Conference method has been used, at least one of the recommendations has included the utility’s desired solution. From that we conclude that the public is willing to accept the utility’s analysis and expertise, provided the public is given the opportunity to “look under the hood” and to bring the community’s values to the table.

Bill Moye, Chris Kenny and Toni Martorelli are partners in STAR Group, LLC. They have successfully implemented the Utility Search Conference approach for several utilities. Bill may be contacted at (505) 260-0876, Chris at (505) 263-7067, and Toni at 505-250-2238. Bob Bellemare is president of UtiliPoint International Inc. He has prepared background reports for utilities and performed analyses of utility engineering projects. Contact Bob at (505) 244-7612.

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