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Studies and Reports > 2015 MN Biennial Report > Public Participation

Transmission Projects Report 2015
Chapter 4: Public Participation

4.0 Public Participation

4.1 Public Involvement in Transmission Planning

Both the statute – Minn. Stat. § 216B.2425 – and the MPUC rules – Minn. Rule part 7848.0900 – emphasize the importance of providing the public and local government officials with an opportunity to participate in transmission planning.  Over the years of filing biennial reports, the utilities have tried, in accordance with MPUC requirements, various methods of advising the public of opportunities to learn about and participate in transmission planning activities. 

The MPUC adopted rules for public involvement in transmission planning as part of the biennial report requirements in 2003.  Initially, in accordance with Minn. Rule part 7848.0900, the utilities held public meetings across the state in each transmission planning zone to advise the public of potential transmission projects and to solicit input regarding development of alternative solutions to various inadequacies.  These public meetings were poorly attended, with little input being offered.

As a result, in May 2008 when the MPUC approved the 2007 Report, the MPUC granted a variance from the obligation to hold these zonal meetings, and that variance has been extended every time since, including in the May 12, 2014, Order regarding this year's Biennial Report.  No public meetings were required in the transmission planning zones as part of this year's biennial report submission. 

In lieu of the public meetings, beginning with the preparation of the 2009 Report, the utilities held six webinars, one for each transmission planning zone, to report on the transmission inadequacies identified in the Biennial Report for each zone.  These webinars were not any better attended than the zonal meetings were in previous years.  Few questions and comments were generated. 

For the 2011 Report, with Commission approval, the utilities held one webinar.  Despite widespread notice in a statewide newspaper of the webinar, only a few people participated, and most of those were utility or state employees.  In 2013, after the 2013 Biennial Report was filed, the utilities held another webinar.  Again, essentially nobody participated – only one person joined in the webinar. 

As a result, the Commission has now determined that the utilities are not required to hold a webinar with regard to the 2015 Report. 

4.2 MISO Transmission Planning

As has been described in previous biennial reports and again in this report, most transmission planning is now conducted through the Midcontinent Independent Transmission System Operator (MISO).  MISO provides all kinds of opportunities for the public to be involved in transmission planning.  The reality is, however, that not many members of the general public avail themselves of these opportunities.  It is understandable, because transmission planning is an extremely technical endeavor. 

4.3 MTO Website

The Minnesota Transmission Owners have maintained a website (www.minnelectrans.com) for several years now, on which interested persons can obtain various information about ongoing transmission planning efforts.  Every Biennial Report, for example, is available on that website, as are many different transmission-related studies.  There is a contact form on the webpage where visitors can ask questions of utilities about proposed projects.  Only a handful of questions have ever been submitted using that method. 

The Minnesota Transmission Owners have even developed two short videos detailing items of interest to the general public about transmission lines that are available on the webpage.  One video describes generally how the transmission planning process is done at utilities in Minnesota. The second video describes how to read the Biennial Transmission Report and engage with transmission owning utilities.

The utilities will continue to post the biennial reports on the webpage and to monitor any questions that are submitted.  The utilities are open to comments from the public about how to improve the webpage. 

4.4 Efforts to Involve the General Public and Local Officials on Specific Projects

The MTO utilities are well aware of the importance of notifying the general public and local governmental officials of any potential large energy project in their area.  The public may not get involved in esoteric transmission planning activities but it surely wants to be aware of projects that are under consideration in its locale.  The utilities often engage local governmental officials and the public in public meetings to discuss upcoming projects.

Minn. Stat. § 216E.03, subds. 3a and 3b, requires any utility that is planning to file an application for a route permit with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission for a new transmission project to notify local governmental officials within a possible route of the existence of the project and the opportunity for a preapplication meeting.  The utilities do this, of course, and often local governmental bodies request a meeting with the utility. 

In the 2013 Biennial Report, in Section 4.4, the utilities provided several examples of how certain utilities had undertaken specific methods of involving local government and the general public.  These examples illustrate methods by which the public can be involved in ongoing transmission projects.  The following examples are also indicative of the steps the utilities take to involve local government and the general public in specific projects. 

4.4.1  Great Northern Transmission Line
            MPUC Tracking No. 2013-NE-N13

The Great Northern Transmission Line (Tracking No. 2013-NE-N13), now well into the regulatory review process, provides an excellent example of outreach efforts being undertaken by Minnesota Power to involve the public and local government.  During the initial stages of the development of the Great Northern Transmission Line Project, Minnesota Power developed a strategic communication plan that identified stakeholders for the Project, along with communication tools, schedule, and approach to create an upfront, engaging, and transparent outreach program to engage those stakeholders early and often throughout the development of the Project.  From August 2012 through November 2013, Minnesota Power organized more than 75 agency and public meetings and launched several communication tools to facilitate stakeholder engagement.  During the route permit environmental review process, Minnesota Power also organized an additional set of 7 voluntary open house meetings in May 2015 to facilitate public involvement in the environmental review.  Below is a brief overview of the key outreach tools and milestones in Minnesota Power's public engagement process for the Great Northern Transmission Line.

In August 2012, Minnesota Power hosted 11 "Stakeholder Workshops" throughout the study area for the Project. Stakeholder workshop invitees included federal, state, and local agencies, local officials, and tribal representatives.  A total of 58 people attended the stakeholder workshops and through their feedback Minnesota Power gathered 142 mapping comments (geographically-based comments made on a large aerial maps at the meetings) and 37 surveys, which helped to understand local community needs and preferences.  The information gathered at these workshops was used to narrow the original study area into broad corridors and plan the outreach and logistics for the subsequent series of public open house meetings.

To provide consistent and ongoing communication and opportunities for comment submittals, Minnesota Power launched a Project website and several additional public outreach tools early in the development of the Project.  On September 30, 2012, Minnesota Power launched the Project website (http://www.greatnortherntransmissionline.com/).  The interactive website provides updates on the Project and an interactive mapping tool as well as a wealth of information about the route development process, permitting process, what the Project will look like, and additional information about Minnesota Power.  The website also gives users the ability to submit comments or questions, and provides contact information for the Project team.  The website has been maintained and updated continuously since September 2012 in order to provide the interested public with the latest and greatest information at every stage of the development and permitting of the Project.  Additional outreach tools employed by Minnesota Power include a Project email address (info@greatnortherntransmissionline.com), a Project comment hotline (877-657-9934), and a recurring Project newsletter distributed to individuals who had signed up to be on the Project mailing list.

From October 2012 through November 2013, Minnesota Power hosted five rounds of voluntary public open house meetings throughout the Project area.  Invitations were mailed to more than 40,000 landowners, federal, state, and local agencies, tribes, elected officials, and non-governmental organizations to attend either an in-person or online open house meeting.  The goal of each open house meeting was to introduce the Project, answer questions, gather input, and collect comments.  These meetings are summarized below:

  • October – November 2012: Eleven "Study Corridor" open house meetings
    • Outreach: Press releases sent to 25 media outlets; newspaper advertisements in 30 local papers; 278 stakeholder letters sent; 48,872 landowner postcard invitations
    • Engagement: 583 attendees, 80 online attendees, 16 comment forms & 154 mapping comments submitted
  • April 2013: Fourteen "Preliminary Route Alternative" open house meetings
    • Outreach: Press releases sent to 71 media outlets; newspaper advertisements in 31 local papers; 2,021 stakeholder letters sent; 40,354 landowner postcard invitations
    • Engagement: 747 attendees, 269 online attendees, 53 comment forms, 38 online comment forms & 249 mapping comments submitted
  • September 2013: Thirteen "Refined Route Alternative" open house meetings
    • Outreach: Press releases sent to 29 media outlets; newspaper advertisements in 31 local papers; 3,470 stakeholder letters sent; 40,982 landowner postcard invitations
    • Engagement: 683 attendees, 108 online attendees, 126 comment forms, 23 online comment forms & 91 mapping comments submitted
  • November 2013: Three "Additional Route Alternative" open house meetings
    • Outreach: Newspaper advertisements in 3 local papers; 3,696 landowner and stakeholder letters sent
    • Engagement: 148 attendees, 27 comment forms, 6 mapping comments submitted

The feedback gathered from Minnesota Power's public engagement program, along with countless additional in-person meetings, conference calls, and email correspondence with federal, state, and local government and non-governmental agencies throughout the Project area, culminated in Minnesota Power's submittal of its proposed "Blue" and alternate "Orange" routes in a Route Permit Application (RPA) to the Commission on April 15, 2014 (MPUC Docket No. E015/TL-14-21) and a Presidential Permit application to the United States Department of Energy.

During the environmental review process for the RPA, Minnesota Power also hosted a series of seven in-person "Scoping Decision Route" voluntary open house meetings in May 2015.  The purpose of these open house meetings was to inform local stakeholders and the public about alternative routes proposed during the scoping for the environmental impact statement (EIS) as well as to inform them on how and when to participate in the Draft EIS and the Contested Case hearings taking place in July and August 2015.  There were 234 attendees for this final round of voluntary public open house meetings, and 10 comment forms and 12 mapping comments were submitted to Minnesota Power and later passed on to the Department of Commerce as comments on the Draft EIS.

Minnesota Power's extensive and unprecedented voluntary public outreach on the Great Northern Transmission Line Project has allowed Minnesota Power to develop relationships with the agencies, local officials, and landowners potentially affected by the Project.  The upfront and transparent process has generally been appreciated by stakeholders and the public regardless of their support or opposition to the Project.  The information gathered through this engagement program and the relationships developed have been critical to the success of Project.

4.4.2  Elko-New Market-Cleary Lake Areas
           MPUC Tracking Number 2009-TC-N2

In June 2013, Great River Energy applied for a Certificate of Need and a Route Permit for a new 115 kV transmission line in Scott and Rice Counties.  In its application, at page 1-9, GRE explained that it contacted several local governmental bodies and the Mdewakanton Sioux Community and invited them to meet prior to submitting the application.  GRE ultimately did meet with several cities and townships and Scott County to explain the project and invite input.  As part of its application, at pages 2-4 and 2-5, GRE explained that pursuant to Minn. Stat.§ 216B.03, subds. 3a and 3b, the following efforts were undertaken to inform the public about this project:

The Applicant held public open house informational meetings on January 15, 2013, at the Scott County Library (Elko New Market Branch) and on January 16, 2013, at the Prior Lake High School.  Approximately 85 members of the public, including governmental officials, attended the open houses. 

The meetings were publicized in several local papers approximately one week prior to the open houses, and landowners potentially impacted received a letter of invitation. Tribal and local government officials and resource agencies were also invited by letter. Minn. Stat. § 216E.03, subd. 3a.  Large aerial maps of the proposed Project, photos of proposed transmission structures, fact sheets, information on the permitting process and need for the Project, right-of-way (ROW) information, and a post card for questions and comments were available at the open houses. 

These are the kind of efforts that utilities follow prior to the time an application for a route permit for a new transmission line is filed with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.