Our Insights

Key Elements to Successful Siting and Permitting

November 13, 2019

By Mike Doyle, AICP, PLA
Senior Project Manager, Environmental Division

This article was originally published in Currents, POWER’s quarterly Environmental newsletter.

In the electric utility world, one of the biggest challenges is routing new high-voltage transmission lines and siting new substations.

Today’s special interest groups and the general public are more sophisticated and can mobilize quickly against a project. As a result, it is important to implement a robust planning process to set your project up for success, with the flexibility to be responsive to local community concerns.

Throughout my career of working on major electric transmission line and substation projects, I’ve developed a list of “key elements.” These fundamentals help lead to successful siting and permitting of projects for our clients.

Develop a defensible purpose and need statement. A solid, factual basis for the project with a defensible purpose and need statement is the first step toward success. Be prepared to answer questions, such as how the project will address future load growth, or if it is a tie-line for a new generation source.

Clearly define the project description and project study area. It sounds simple, but what exactly are you proposing to build? Minimize project description changes during permitting. When the study area is defined, does it take into account all reasonable route alternatives? What criteria were used to define the study area?

Identify stakeholders and issues with early and continuous outreach. Meet with appropriate federal, state, county and municipal agencies before you begin the permit application process. Early briefing meetings with elected officials and special interest groups will help identify issues and concerns.

Integrate stakeholder and public input into the planning process. Be prepared to document how comments are received and how they are used to make adjustments, respond to issues or apply mitigation. Tracking and documenting comments is important for the decision-making process, as well as any potential legal procedures that follow.

Identify a reasonable range of alternatives. Develop a reasonable range of spatial alternatives to evaluate for routes and substation sites. But don’t forget that analyzing alternatives can also include non-wires options, such as distributed generation, demand-side analysis or even underground versus overhead.

Characterize alternative routes adequately for comparison. Consider the end product needed for project approval (e.g., municipal conditional use permit, state certificate filing, National Environmental Policy Act compliance document) and make sure the key environmental resource studies match the level of analysis needed. Whether it’s wildlife resources, cultural resources and tribal consultation, visual resources, or wetland resources, address the permit conditions accordingly. Prepare a comprehensive, transparent analysis of the alternative routes and substation sites.

Define decision criteria and use a defensible route selection process. Sounds easy, but how did the project team document the route-screening process used to narrow down alternatives? How did your company select a preferred route? Is it clearly defined and understandable? Can it be duplicated and is it defensible? Mysterious criteria weighting and undocumented decision processes will lead a project down a road of turmoil and despair.

Develop a partnership approach with federal, state and local agencies. Clear and ongoing communication with key regulatory decision-makers is important. Share data and analysis results. Be nice and work collaboratively.

Cultivate political support for the project and the process. Engage communities, landowners and special interest groups through community working groups or advisory committee meetings throughout the project. Keep political leaders informed and up-to-date on the project status.

Plan enough time and maintain patience. It can be a long road to project approval sometimes. Educate your executive management team and senior company officials on the planning process and schedule. Keep them briefed on milestones.

Incorporating these key elements into your planning process and project execution is a formula for success on your next project.

About the Author:

Mike is an Environmental Department Manager and Senior Project Manager with nearly three decades of expertise in environmental planning and energy infrastructure siting, routing, permitting and construction compliance. He guides clients such as electric utilities, renewable energy developers and midstream pipeline companies in navigating the complex array of federal, state, county and municipal regulations. Got a question for Mike? Send him an email at mike.doyle@powereng.com.