CGU researcher developing map to reduce conflicts over SoCal energy infrastructure projects

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hal Nelson, research associate professor in Claremont Graduate University's School of Social Science, Policy, and Evaluation, is creating an interactive online map that will help Southern California residents become more involved in decisions about how energy infrastructure projects are built in their communities.

Hal Nelson

The map will depict proposed projects such as solar and wind power plants, transmission lines, and gas pipelines, providing an early warning system for citizens and municipal governments about what's being planned for their communities. This will help them to participate in the planning processes at an earlier stage, potentially reducing the legal gridlock and expensive delays that are 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 are funded by a two-year, $127,900 grant from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation.

The Los Angeles region is 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 contains 79 projects in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties alone. Many of these new generation facilities will require new transmission lines to deliver the electricity to urban areas. In addition, if extraction of natural gas in the Monterey Shale increases, there will be a need for new natural gas pipelines and gas processing facilities.

These types of projects create 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 do not know about the projects until proponents file plans with state regulators. Nelson calls 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 will deliver 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 spent 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 will take upwards of an additional two years, resulting in a four year delay in getting the power line operational.

Nelson's web-based map will be publicly available and will use data from state agencies and energy industry trade publications to publicize these projects when they're in their earliest stages. It will include links to project documents, designs and routes, and sponsor contact information. The map will be searchable by county and zip code and will have 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.

Nelson plans to have the map online within the next year.

In a second element of the grant project, Nelson will lead research into questions raised by community groups about new energy infrastructure projects. The research aims to identify what factors lead to the success or failure of these challenges. The work builds off of previous research Nelson has done relating to reducing conflict around energy infrastructure construction.

Nelson’s research interests focus on stakeholder participation and facilitation, simulation modeling, and economic analysis.  His research simulates citizen and stakeholder opposition to new infrastructure projects in the built environment using GIS and agent based modeling. He is also a chartered financial analyst and a former member of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Nelson has publications appearing in The Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, Land Use Policy, Ecology and Society, Energy Policy, The Journal of Policy Studies, The Journal of Environment and Development, The Journal of Public Affairs Education, The Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, and Climate Policy.