I came across an article recently that provides an opportunity to compare and contrast the actions of two different utilities attempting to build new transmission capacity for short distances in urban areas.
Dominion needs to build new capacity in the City of Alexandria, Virginia. In preparation, it convened a "resident-led work group" and involved city officials in coming up with a plan that was least objectionable to the city and residents. By doing this, the affected individuals were allowed to "buy in" to a solution that they felt they had some control over. By giving the affected community a (real or imagined) voice in selecting a solution, opposition was ameliorated.
“In my view, Dominion looked really hard at the input this community had and listened to us around the table. I’ve served on a lot of task groups in Alexandria, but this is probably the best I ever sat on.”
And Mayor Allison Silberberg touted Dominion’s proposal for the fact that both options keep power lines underground.
“The good news is Dominion put forward two alternatives that are, in the proposal, both shown to be underground in Alexandria,” Silberberg said. “That’s really good, because that has been a top concern. We are awaiting more info from Dominion with regard to the specifics, and then once we get that specific info from them, we will be reconvening the work group, which has been excellent, to go over these considerations and the two options.”
Now, let's compare this to FirstEnergy's current kerfuffle in New Jersey. FE affiliate Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L) wants to build a 10-mile transmission upgrade in urban Monmouth County, NJ. And they want to do it overhead, along a commuter train right-of-way. FirstEnergy has not consulted with the community, but is insisting on building the project to its own specifications. Opposition has been huge, swift, and fierce. Community opponents number in the thousands. Legislators have gotten involved. And opposition to this particular transmission proposal has leaked over into FirstEnergy's proposal for a transmission only utility spin-off in the state. What a mess FirstEnergy has made of this project and its community goodwill. There's no going back from this.
By refusing to take community suggestion, and insisting that it cannot bury the project along the train right-of-way (although Dominion seems to be able to do just that in Virginia), FirstEnergy has done nothing but encourage opposition to dig in its heels and spread like wildfire. The MCRP will never be built as currently envisioned by JCP&L. FirstEnergy cannot bully or buy its way to community support for MCRP.
It's time for some new thinking at FirstEnergy's transmission headquarters. In days gone by, it was accepted practice for a transmission utility to simply buy enough community support to get a project approved despite community opposition. A utility never had to compromise when it could buy enough support to fool regulators and provide "political cover" for elected officials to claim that the community at large supported the proposal. A utility simply presented its planned project as a fait accompli and ignored any community opposition. The times, they are a changing.
Dominion has accepted that there is a better way to get transmission built without widespread community opposition that delays projects and increases their cost unnecessarily. FirstEnergy is still banging its corporate head against a brick wall, refusing to change, and causing delays and unnecessary costs for projects it does manage to get approved through third-party advocacy.
There is a better way. And it works. If FirstEnergy wasn't so mismanaged, it would clean house in its transmission department and restock it with folks from Dominion.