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The One When The Planets Lined Up

I was busy raising three children when “Friends” was popular in prime time.  I rarely saw even part of an episode.  Yet, somehow, I know that all of their titles were famous for beginning with “The one….”.   I know this is true because it is on the internet.

 At the time of this writing, there is an astral wonder occurring in the pre-dawn sky.  This only happens on rare occasions, so it apparently is a big deal.  Sort of like “Friends” reruns.  In the southeastern sky, the planets Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter are almost exactly aligned and visible to the naked eye.  This has not happened for eleven years, so it is noteworthy.  As an added bonus, the bright stars Antares (in the constellation Scorpius) and Spica (in Virgo) are also visible.  Be still my beating heart!

 Have you ever had those projects where you seem to wrestle with various issues that simply do not want to resolve themselves for a period of time?  Then, due to often unknown reasons, they sometimes all resolve themselves in a short amount of time, perhaps even an hour or two.  It’s a wonderful thing when that happens.  I often attribute this to ‘….all the planets being aligned’.  

 As a professional engineering consultant, it is not unusual to work on large infrastructure projects that have schedule challenges.  Projects can involve many competing tasks and multiple interested stakeholders.  With all the moving parts, projects can often feel like they are moving through molasses.  Perhaps some transmission line project examples can illustrate the need for aligned planets.

 A high-voltage electrical transmission line basically connects dots – getting power from point A to point B.  It seems simple, yet rarely is the final route a straight line between the two.  The line route must typically avoid significant exclusion zones – areas that might involve nature areas, wetlands, rugged terrain, state or federal lands, flood plains, habitats for endangered species, etc.   Avoiding all these areas rarely results in a straight line.

 Regulatory agencies often dictate that the line route follow established physical division lines.  Examples include roads and section lines.  Gone are the days where a line cuts diagonally across a number of sections for miles at a time.  The line owners must also coordinate with other interested parties:  state departments of transportation, railroads, gas pipelines, other utilities, airports, among others.

 Once a route is selected and the regulatory bodies approve the overall plan, the line owner can begin visiting with property owners to acquire easement rights.  The number of possible objections are as varied as the number of involved landowners.  Negotiations related to location, type of structures, easement cost, access for construction and maintenance and settling construction damages can take a long time.

 If the project owner cannot get voluntary easements along the proposed line route, the process returns to the regulatory agencies.  Occasionally a utility-owner will ask for the right of eminent domain in order to acquire a limited number of non-voluntary easements.  Once this process begins, the regulatory timeline quickly becomes unpredictable, often taking years to resolve on larger projects.  Aligned planets can be particularly useful during this phase!

 Once line design begins, other decisions can impact the schedule.  If anchor guys are needed, so are guy easements.  If structure foundations are needed, then subsurface geotechnical testing is required.  Should other utilities need to attach to the structures, then even more effort is needed for adequate, coordinated design.

 You might also imagine the coordination and time required to order specialized materials, construct the line and settle damages with landowners once the project is complete.  Challenges and difficulties are common throughout the life of a project.

 Large utility infrastructure projects are both challenging and rewarding for utility professionals.  Yet the need for ‘aligned planets’ in order to move things forward is not uncommon.  If only this happened once every eleven years!

 I think I’ll prepare for planet gazing tomorrow morning by watching some reruns of “Friends”.  I need to expand my horizons.


About the author

Marlon is our account executive in the Power market. He has more than 35 years of experience with all aspects of planning, design and construction of 12.5 kV-345 kV distribution and transmission systems, including right-of-way, design, regulatory coordination, public information meetings, public testimony and project management. With an extensive background in power transmission and distribution, Marlon brings a wide variety of knowledge in discussing the energy industry and the issues it faces. From education of future engineers to critical infrastructure analysis, he offers a unique perspective on the industry and where it's headed.