Hal Nelson, research associate professor in Claremont Graduate University's School of Social Science, Policy, and Evaluation, created an interactive online map that would help Southern California residents become more involved in decisions about how energy infrastructure projects are built in their communities.
The map depicted proposed projects such as solar and wind power plants, transmission lines, and gas pipelines, provided an early warning system for citizens and municipal governments about what's being planned for their communities. This helped them to participate in the planning processes at an earlier stage, potentially reducing the legal gridlock and expensive delays that were straining the current system.
"Many of these projects are potentially disruptive to communities, and when they're developed in isolation it's a lot harder for the communities to provide alternative ideas," Nelson said. "We think the map has the potential to lead to better outcomes and less litigation."
The map and related research were funded by a two-year, $127,900 grant from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation.
The Los Angeles region was experiencing a boom in energy infrastructure construction as California races to meet ambitious renewable energy goals. The queue to connect new electricity generation facilities to transmission and distribution stations currently contained 79 projects in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties alone. Many of these new generation facilities required new transmission lines to deliver the electricity to urban areas. In addition, if extraction of natural gas in the Monterey Shale increases, there was a need for new natural gas pipelines and gas processing facilities.
These types of projects created social dilemmas: They provide much-needed economic development and reliable oil, gas, and electricity supplies, but come with tradeoffs such as environmental degradation, health and safety risks, and property value declines for communities next to them.
Under the current system, communities often did not know about the projects until proponents file plans with state regulators. Nelson called this the "decide, announce, defend" approach, and it can result in disastrous battles between energy suppliers and citizens during the planning process.
For example, a $2.1 billion, 250-mile power line project that delivered wind energy to the Los Angeles region was delayed for more than two years while residents in Chino Hills, California, fought against a five-mile section near their homes. The city spend more than $3 million in taxpayer revenue on the battle. The local opposition group Hope for the Hill convinced the California Public Utilities Commission to halt construction and eventually ordered the segment placed underground. Construction of the underground segment taked upwards of an additional two years, resulting in a four year delay in getting the power line operational.
Nelson's web-based map be publicly available and used data from state agencies and energy industry trade publications to publicize these projects when they were in their earliest stages. It included links to project documents, designs and routes, and sponsor contact information. The map be searchable by county and zip code and had layers for each energy technology (solar, wind, natural gas generation, transmission lines).
"By reaching out to the project sponsors early in the design phase, communities have a better likelihood of having their concerns integrated into the project's development," Nelson said.
In a second element of the grant project, Nelson leaded research into questions raised by community groups about new energy infrastructure projects. The research aimed to identify what factors lead to the success or failure of these challenges. The work builds off of previous research Nelson had done relating to reducing conflict around energy infrastructure construction.