Duke Energy, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
PHOTO BY MIKE CARROLL
Randy Veltri, Duke Energy, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
Viewing community members as key project stakeholders serves a power company well—even when it costs time and money.
As one of the largest power providers in the United States, Duke Energy delivers electricity and gas to four million customers every day. To upgrade its network and accommodate the consumption demands of a growing population, the organization constantly manages projects to build transmission lines and substations.
Yet it couldn’t get any of these projects off the ground without community support.
“Projects no longer are solely defined by technical success, such as schedule, budget and quality,” says Randy Veltri, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA-based manager of siting and site development for Duke Energy’s power delivery engineering group. “The environmental and social performance is increasingly under scrutiny from external stakeholders. Greater economic and social knowledge are increasing the demand for information and transparency.”
To ensure local stakeholders support new transmission line projects, Mr. Veltri’s team holds formal planning meetings with community members, regulators, civic leaders and anyone else who could be impacted. These meetings are intended to inform members of the public about the project design, the need it will fill in the community and environmental concerns. It also provides them a chance to voice concerns over aesthetics or right of way.
“This is more than just punch and cookies in a church basement,” says Paul Kling, PMP, director of project management and controls for Duke Energy’s power delivery engineering group in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. They are serious meetings with clear objectives: to educate the community on what the company is building and why.
Often, public stakeholders can give us more up-to-date local information. That is why their input is so critical.
“But the main purpose is to gain relevant information from the community on factors that may affect the route selection,” Mr. Veltri adds.
After Duke Energy’s siting team determines the study area for a transmission line project, field and electronic data is collected and utilized to select viable alternative route corridors.
That information isn’t always accurate, though, so the various options are presented to the public in a community workshop to gain further input. Only then are the routes evaluated and ranked using multiple environmental and sociological factors.
“Often, public stakeholders can give us more up-to-date local information,” Mr. Veltri says.
The local data may point out unmarked water features, cemeteries or historic landmarks that require the project plan to be adjusted.
“That is why their input is so critical,” he adds.
At a meeting in February, for example, 130 external stakeholders attended a community workshop led by Duke Energy to discuss a new power line project. Several attendees brought up information about a land use change in the study area from agricultural to a planned residential development— data that was not current on the town’s website.
“We typically start out with what seems like the best route for known objectives and avoiding public impact when evaluated on paper. Then we find out that there are often public priorities that were not previously identified,” Mr. Kling says. “If we didn’t have that information from community members, considerable time and effort could be spent planning for a line route that might create public objections.”
In this case, they were able to alter the project plan before any time or money was wasted.
Such discoveries are typical with these kinds of projects, which can stretch over dozens of miles of land and affect hundreds of land and business owners, Mr. Kling notes.
“That’s the value of working with the public early in the planning stages,” Mr. Veltri says.
Once the community is informed of the selected route, the project team stays connected with public stakeholders to address their needs and accommodate disruptions to their land or property during the acquisition and construction phases. Because these projects can affect so many people, project managers at the organization formally track every commitment the team makes to ensure they’re all met. The division has implemented an internal website for projects to document property owner contacts, acquisition agreements, permits and final closeout documents.
This helps the project team monitor even small issues to avoid losing track of items that might impact individual customers or communities, Mr. Kling says. A team member may promise a landowner that the access road they are building on his property will avoid a certain tree.
“That may be a small promise made during a 10-minute conversation but it’s important to that stakeholder,” he says.
And that’s just one of the hundreds of conversations the project team will have with the public.
“We need to honor all of those commitments, which is why it’s important to track them as part of the project management process,” Mr. Kling says.
However, even with the best efforts to reach out to external stakeholders and meet their needs, sometimes issues arise that project teams haven’t planned for.
Duke Energy faced such a dilemma when the organization found itself in a legal dispute while selecting a site for a substation transmission line. The team had spent a year performing due diligence, pulling cultural resource data and securing community support for the project, which was deemed vital as population growth in the Swain County, North Carolina area was nearing its electrical capacity.
A site was chosen for the station, construction began—and then the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians brought a lawsuit against the company, claiming the station site was “in view of sacred ground.”
As it turned out, the project site was half a mile (0.8 kilometers) away from the ancient settlement of Kituwah.
“This site has special value to the tribe,” Mr. Veltri says.
But it hadn’t come up in his team’s research.
Due to the complaint’s sensitive nature, Duke Energy immediately shut the project down, and the team put in long hours to devise a solution.
With support from the organization’s executive committee, the project team decided to avoid a court battle by relocating the station. It accommodated the Cherokees’ request—despite the resources already invested in purchasing and developing the project site.
“Objecting to the group’s beliefs would have been counterproductive,” Mr. Kling says. “It would have cost a lot of time and money to dispute the claims in court, and it would have added risk to our ability to serve the customers in the area.”
It could also have damaged Duke Energy’s overall standing in the community and with utility regulators.
A new site was purchased, and the project team got the new transmission station sited in time to address impending voltage issues.
This scope creep led to increased costs, but it met the community’s needs and protected what is viewed as sacred land.
In response, Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians publicly applauded Duke Energy’s response, which built goodwill for the company in the community.
“I appreciate Duke Energy’s understanding of these sensitive issues and their hard work to identify alternate locations for the electrical station,” Chief Hicks said in a statement.
The astute handling of the dilemma prompted Duke Energy to give Mr. Veltri and three of his colleagues the James B. Duke Award, the company’s highest employee award for service to the company and community.
“Mr. Veltri’s team worked diligently for seven months on this project,” Mr. Kling says. “They made friends with folks who could have been enemies, and they allowed the project to proceed while meeting all stakeholder expectations.”
For his part, Mr. Veltri just sees it as being part of his job.
“The bottom line is that we are here to serve the customers,” he says. “Focusing on the community as a stakeholder builds long-term value for the company and helps us avoid problems along the way.”
—Sarah Fister Gale
PM NETWORK SEPTEMBER 2011 WW.PMI.ORG