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Marketing & Competing

Fortnightly Magazine - March 15 1995

Increasing competition in the electric power industry is likely to entail a little-recognized major complication (em greater difficulty in siting transmission lines. The stakes will often be greater, the opposition could be stronger, and both put a premium on finding a process that can win public acceptance cost-effectively. Increasingly, the cost-effective solution will draw on strategic communications and political skills, not just engineering or standard "straight-line" economics.

There are at least three reasons why siting new lines is bound to become more difficult:

s More utilities will try to build lines to gain better access to other power markets, either to export power or purchase less expensive power. At the same time, the communities in the path of the new lines are less likely to be served by them and will see no benefit to offset the nuisance.

s Many new lines will encounter not only more sophisticated opposition about the perceived health threats of electric and magnetic fields, but also a relatively new form of resistance: claims about the alleged injustice of siting lines in low-income or minority neighborhoods.

s Electric power companies that stand to lose market share if new lines succeed will align themselves with the opposition.

Today's utility/energy service companies should consider a new transmission line not as a technical or corporate project, but a societal decision ... a community decision ... a political decision.

Create a Campaign Team

From the moment a utility makes the decision to build a transmission line and the engineers outline where it needs to go, a select group of individuals should come together and form the core of a team that can pursue siting approval in much the same way a candidate campaigns for public office.

The team leader, or project manager, ideally should embody many of the qualities that make a good campaign director: good political instincts and communications skills, as well as a firm grasp of what is technically possible. This person might be a senior engineer, the director of corporate commu-nications, or perhaps even the in-state head of government affairs. The rest of the team needs to balance out the leader's weak points and should have authority to drawn upon the company's top performers. If siting the line is critical to the company's future, it should be accorded the highest priority.

Develop a Strategic Plan

As soon as the core of the campaign team can meet, these individuals should begin devising a strategic course of action with specific responsibilities. A winning course of action involves more than just meeting the legal requirements and dealing with public concerns. It requires anticipating public reaction and seizing the initiative to define the debate from the start. If you fall behind or get caught off guard, it becomes increasingly difficult to recover, much less win. Determining what needs to be done, by when and by whom, can make the difference between winning timely approval and submitting to repeated delays. Even if you don't lose a siting contest outright, the sheer time value of money can quickly make a proposed line uneconomic. A proactive