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 strategic approach can minimize delays.
Do Your Homework
Early public opinion research is key to successful campaigns to site industrial and waste facilities. A poll can help you evaluate public sentiment along the proposed route that could play a role in challenging your line. It can also help you decide how to explain why you're building the line, especially if it won't benefit local residences.
Some companies are tempted to skip any kind of research. They figure they know their communities well enough to spend that money on something else. But electric power providers don't know what they don't know. The risk of not knowing is too great.
Seize the Initiative
As soon as a transmission line siting project goes public, the clock starts counting down the time you have to make your case. Seldom does more than one month pass before opposition coalesces and activists begin complaining to elected officials and filing suit in court (em with the news media chronicling every development. The key point here: You must seize the initiative and do everything you can to set the agenda for the inevitable debate. Communicating with potential allies from the start and helping prepare them for criticism from opponents is essential.
Most local residents will probably keep an open mind about a new transmission line. But if they hear first from opponents, especially "green consumers" who reject any type of economic development, your campaign may be lost before it really gets moving. Being first is necessary to build the momentum that many projects need to endure lengthy siting battles.
Open Up Prudently
Some utilities (em accustomed to the regulatory compact with customers, local governments, and state commissioners (em might consider it politically correct to conduct completely open public proceedings. Unless local regulations require an open-book approach, this tactic invites defeat by giving critics a platform to air their emotionally charged, opposing views.
A better approach is to enlist local leaders and give them a more practical means of communicating with you, such as a community advisory panel. Or you could hold a series of small open-houses to connect concerned citizens with company representatives. Another option would be to conduct a direct mail campaign and spell out concisely why the new transmission line needs to be built.
What's in it for the Locals?
If a utility tried to build a large transmission line through your community, wouldn't you expect the local leaders to rise up and ask: What's in it for us? If they don't ask, you can bet someone else will.
If you cannot prove the line is needed to maintain local service, you may need to offer electricity discounts to customers in the affected area. If that wipes out the economics, you may need to include these kinds of expenses when estimating the cost of building a new line.
Beyond this lie the siting pitfalls that await naive managements unaware of the debate that rages over the fairness of siting lines in low-income or minority neighborhoods. "Environmental justice" is the new rallying cry of intervenor groups. These groups will demand that utilities prove that ethnic or low-income residents will suffer no disproportionate effects. This will probably prove an impossible hurdle to clear. The only solution is to respect and work with the core problem, while remaining aware that the issue could be misused by those with other agendas.
Voluntary Siting May Be the Only Answer
Voluntary community siting may be the only answer. It may take more than just dollars to win over the community. Benefits will have to balance the undesirability of the transmission line, as judged by the vocal public. That could include guaranteeing or bonding real estate values, perhaps even purchasing them.
At a recent transmission conference, a handful of utility executives estimated that building a transmission line today would cost at least 10 times what it cost in the 1970s. Others speculated that even this estimate may understate the financial stakes. But with increased competition and the industry's evolution toward more dedicated distribution and/or transmission companies, the payback (em if there is one (em could be handsome. Provided you site the new line cost-effectively in the first place. t
James R. Pierobon counsels energy providers on strategic marketing initiatives through Potomac Communications Group Inc. in Washington, DC, and Houston.
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