As Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G) and PPL have proved, all it takes to get a high voltage transmission line built in the U.S. today is the patience of Job, a little help from the Obama administration, and the ability to fly.
The 150 mile, $1.4 billion, 500 kilovolt alternating current (AC) Roseland-Susquehanna line will be completed by PSE&G and PPL by spring 2015. Of the seven high voltage projects named for special attention by the Obama Administration’s Rapid Response Transmission Team (RRTT) in 2009, it is the only one nearing completion.
The credit for that goes to the utilities’ teams. But Roseland-Susquehanna was born with some advantages.
The need for the line
Regional Transmission Operator PJM gave the Susquehanna project an imperative and a timeline when it initiated the undertaking in 2007 “to resolve numerous overloads on critical 230 kV circuits across Eastern Pennsylvania and Northern New Jersey” forecast for 2012.
PJM’s 2010 Regional Transmission Expansion Plan (RTEP) “identified five NERC reliability criteria violations, confirming the need [for a new high voltage line]” and noted that “incremental upgrades are not a practical solution.”
PJM conducted a market efficiency analysis that predicted the upgrade would save congestion costs of $160 million by 2012 and $280 million by 2014.
Besides christening the project with an imperative and a reward, PJM set out the division of labor. “The advantage of each utility working its own state was that each of us could go to our own commission during the siting process and get its approval,” explained PPL Communications Director Paul Wirth. “We sited the line in our Pennsylvania service territory and worked our commission and PSE&G did the same in New Jersey. The commissions are familiar with us and we are familiar with their processes.”
The line’s route was essentially pre-determined by the existing 230 kilovolt line’s right-of-way (ROW). As would-be builders of high voltage projects in the Midwest, the high plains, and the Pacific Northwest have told Utility Dive, settling on a route can be a huge challenge.
Permitting—the first obstacle
Roseland-Susquehanna’s first challenge was securing permits.
One of the keys was a special use permit allowing passage through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (DWGNRA), a national recreation area managed by the Department of the Interior’s National Forest Service, PSE&G Projects & Construction Manager Jason Kalwa explained. That required an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) obtained under the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.
“The RRTT helped get that,” Kalwa said.
Transwest Express (TWE) Director of Communications Kara Choquette recently told Utility Dive the RRTT had maintained progress but wasn’t sure it speeded the process. Idaho Power's Boardman-to-Hemingway Project Manager Doug Dockter said it has neither helped nor hampered his project. But the Roseland-Susquehanna builders praised the RRTT.
“We had been in planning since 2008. The RRTT helped focus the attention of the numerous federal agencies involved,” explained PSE&G Communications Director Karen Johnson. “It helped keep the decision-making process on schedule. Being on that list said ‘this line is important to address reliability concerns in this part of the country.’”
“It wasn’t only the National Park Service,” Wirth said. “We needed permits from the Army Corps of Engineers. We needed permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We needed the Federal Aviation Administration because of the height of the towers in an air traffic corridor. The RRTT coordinated and streamlined that.”
Construction—the next hurdle
Getting the permits was one hurdle. Equally challenging was the construction, which started in 2012 and had to be done in accordance with the permits while overseen by a National Park Service (NPS) team.
“We had to comply with a number of plans that outlined the various requirements of the special use permit,” Kalwa said. “But the Park Service was reasonable. Just like we are responsible for ensuring the reliability of the electric system, they are responsible for protecting their park. I didn’t think any of their requests were unreasonable.”
The three rules in all environmentally sensitive work are to avoid impacts, minimize impacts, or mitigate impacts. From regular meetings with NPS personnel, in which Kalwa took the lead for both utilities, crews got instructions to tread lightly, use protective fencing, be cautious about matting, and watch vehicles’ speed.
Because of the stringent permit requirements and a short outage window before service from the 230 kV line had to be replaced by service from the 500 kV line, "we realized a joint team was the best approach,” Wirth added.
“The key to success, especially with the National Park Service, was listening to their concerns and finding ways to reduce impacts with those avoidance and minimization measures,” Kalwa said. "It might be something as simple as putting up a fence or limiting construction vehicles or lowering the speed limit. Small things went a long way.”
A $66 million mitigation fund established by PSE&G and PPL covered the extra care as well as thorough post-construction restoration and monitoring, Kalwa and Johnson said.
The power to fly
Segment one, near Roseland, went through the Troy Meadows wetlands. To avoid environmental impacts, Kalwa had his crews do the work with a helicopter-like air crane instead of building roads to the ROW path and trucking in ground crews and a crane. Lighter-weight lattice towers were used.
“It was a real environmental win,” Johnson said. “We flew all the equipment in piece by piece. As they were lowered, construction crews on the towers bolted the pieces into place.”
By eliminating the costs of road building, mitigation, and restoration, Kalwa and Johnson speculated, using the air crane did not add significantly to the next project's cost, and might have even saved money. “Removal and demolition took all of about two hours,” Kalwa said.
PPL did standard construction with tubular steel towers, Wirth said. “They were brought in on trucks and craned into place.”
Restoration—keeping the promise
Restoration in the National Park segment was more challenging than on other segments. The NPS required special mitigations like weed-free topsoil and provisions for wood turtles. “It was different,” Kalwa said. “But we want to make it equal to or better than it was before.”
There are also five-year, nine-year, and life-of-the-line ongoing monitoring requirements. Specialists paid from the mitigation fund make sure that the restored habitats support healthy populations of species like wood turtles and rattlesnakes.
“It proves you can build a project like this and maintain your commitment to the environment and your customers,” Johnson said.
“One of the other major challenges of siting a new high voltage line is the tendency of people not to want it where they live,” Wirth added.
“But we’re pretty sure they want their lights to come on when they flip the switch,” he went on. "Infrastructure in this country needs to be upgraded. This project is a great example of how that can be done, even when there are significant challenges, if you bring the right people together."
Editor's Note: This is the fourth piece in an ongoing Utility Dive series on high voltage transmission in the U.S. Other installments in the series are:
What happened to that national high voltage transmission system? Clean Line and others are still pioneering lines for remote renewables.
Can Warren Buffett's Pacificorp bring the Northwest's renewable riches to market? The Energy Gateway will change the way America uses energy — when it gets finished.
How new transmission will bring Wyoming wind to California: President Obama’s transmission plan aims to bring remote renewables to load centers.