By Michael Kuser
BOSTON — Developing trust is vital for the project siting process, according to panelists speaking at Raab Associates’ 156th New England Electricity Restructuring Roundtable last week.
“The thing that most undermines a project is when the proponent is seen as not presenting facts, not disclosing things, misrepresenting things,” Conservation Law Foundation President Bradley Campbell told meeting participants. “And it happens more often than you might think.”
Patrick Woodcock, assistant secretary of energy with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, highlighted the region’s progress in reducing emissions over the past decade and his state’s long list of project approvals in the past six months, including electrical transmission, LNG storage and natural gas pipelines.
But Woodcock, formerly Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s principal energy adviser, also pointed out the “natural conflict” that occurs around permitting. “In Maine, the biggest issues were not with natural gas pipelines or transmission lines, but with wind permitting,” he said.
Developers found that about 10% of the turbines represented about 90 to 95% of the controversy in Maine, he said.
“What that does is not only impede those projects that get a lot of media attention, but it creates a controversy for the entire industry, and I think there are parallels with what we see in Massachusetts,” Woodcock said. “When you start to have bad actors, and we have had a few, that causes a public perception over the entire industry.”
Compare and Contrast
Campbell said a developer’s credibility issues are “the most potent weapon” CLF has when it opposes a project. He then compared two potential projects in New England: Northern Pass and the New England Clean Power Link.
Both projects were proposed in July in response to a Massachusetts solicitation for 9.45 TWh/year of hydro and Class I renewables (wind, solar or energy storage), with projects to be selected in January.
Eversource Energy partnered with Hydro-Quebec on Northern Pass, a 192-mile line that would bring 1,090 MW of Canadian hydropower into New England for 20 years starting in December 2020.
Transmission Developers Inc. partnered with Hydro-Quebec on the New England Clean Power Link, which would include a submarine cable under Lake Champlain and an overland section to transmit 1,000 MW of hydropower, solar and wind from Canada. (See Hydro-Quebec Dominates Mass. Clean Energy Bids.)
“There was inadequate public engagement on the Northern Pass side,” Campbell said. “There were many, many points at which Eversource New Hampshire lost credibility with the public by not disclosing or by making representations that later turned out to be inaccurate, and the … process was entirely without significant stakeholder input. As a result of that you have an absolutely oppositional circumstance, which is going to affect the state of the project.”
Even though Northern Pass received a presidential permit on the U.S. side, “that original sin of failing to engage with the public in a credible way stays with them,” Campbell said. “Compare that with TDI, where you have 100% of the line being buried, as mitigation and minimization, as opposed to 30% [with Northern Pass]. Many fewer wetland impacts, many fewer vernal pool impacts. Down the line, a better engagement process and one that, in the case of our initial opposition, resulted in what we think is a robust mitigation package and a piece of transmission infrastructure that would serve the region well and also serve the environment and advance environmental objectives well.”
Lawrence Susskind, director of the MIT-Harvard Public Negotiations Program, said there will always be winners and losers from projects — or people who see themselves that way. The difference between the two, he said, is that a million people in a city who stand to gain $100 from a project have no motivation either way, while just a few people, if they perceive themselves to be big losers, are motivated to oppose.
The key, Susskind said, is to influence the 30 to 40% in the middle who haven’t yet made up their mind. The “guardians,” as Susskind called them, want to be convinced of a project’s merits and will support the opponents if they think that the process is unfair.
Building trust with stakeholders is key, said MU Connections President Mary Usovicz, who works with project developers on strategy.
“Ask, don’t tell. Spend time listening,” Usovicz said. “I recently did a project and the managers came in and said, ‘What are our talking points, what are we going to say, how are we going to pitch this?’ And I said, ‘No, we’re not doing any of that. We’re going to go on a listening tour. We’re going to go and listen to what people have to say. You’re going to introduce yourselves and say, “And what do you think about this project? How would you do this?”’”
That client spent two months just meeting stakeholders and listening, and that leaves a sense of trust, she said.
“That’s how you build trust,” Usovicz said. “When you listen to what people say, acknowledge what they have to say and actually incorporate it. So they changed their entire campaign after they did this listening tour — that builds up trust. Also it allows you to know what are those gains that Professor Susskind spoke about.”
When they go on such listening tours, developers can sometimes be shocked about what is important to people, she said.
“One lady said, ‘I’ll let you build that pipeline if, with all the trees you have to cut down, you stack them as firewood for me,’” Usovicz said. “That was her ask. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll stack it. I’ll have my husband come and stack it.’ It’s amazing what is important to people, but if you don’t listen and ask, you’re going to jump to conclusions.”
For one LNG project in Connecticut, Usovicz’s polling and research determined that community members trusted first responders more than the developer, the utility and the mayor. Knowing that the project to expand an LNG facility would remove gas tanker trucks from the roads, she took that information to first responders, who wrote a letter in support of the project because of improved community safety.
“And then [first responders] became the point of reference for the project,” Usovicz said.
Energy Pricing and Fuel Supply
Participants also touched on other issues.
Andrew Weinstein, legal adviser to FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur, spoke on behalf of his boss, who couldn’t attend the meeting because of family matter.
Weinstein read notes from LaFleur’s speech highlighting issues of the coming years, such as “how energy pricing evolves in the face of so many new technologies and services. We’ve talked for years about non-volumetric energy pricing based on attributes provided, rather than just fuel burned, and it’s closer than it’s ever been.”
ISO-NE CEO Gordon van Welie addressed what he said are the two most important issues facing the region: integrating markets and public policy, and fuel security issues, namely natural gas supply constraints in winter.
Van Welie pondered the issue of state support for renewable resources through contracting: “So the real philosophical challenge is how do you make a competitive market work if one set of resources in that market are going to get cost of service and the rest of the resources are merchant and have to live on the revenues in that wholesale market?”
If one stands back from the details, he said, the question is, “Should the market lean in the direction of creating certainty for the states in terms of the entry of their resources into the capacity market, or should we lean in the direction of ensuring price formation? And I think what you’ll see is the ISO leans a little bit in the direction of price formation, knowing that we’ve got a big, three-decade transition ahead of us.”
Van Welie also noted that the RTO has done a study on fuel security and will wait until issues are settled around the U.S. Energy Department’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to subsidize uneconomic coal and nuclear before releasing the report. (See ISO-NE Plans for Hybrid Grid, Flat Loads, More Gas.)
“We’ve got more gas-fired capacity than we need in the winter, but we don’t have enough fuel to supply it,” he said.