Environmental experts are the hub of infrastructure planning
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Why environmental experts are the hub of strong transmission infrastructure teams

The transition from reliance on fossil fuels to a broader adoption of renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydro represents a shift in how we power our world. But this shift isn't just about generating renewable energy; it's also about ensuring that the infrastructure needed to distribute this energy is in place.

Permitting (or consenting) is a vital step in transmission infrastructure development. Generally, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a significant part of this process that must be completed for the project to receive the go-ahead from regulatory authorities.

The environment in this context has multiple meanings, including man-made elements in the environment like cultural heritage, landscapes, and the visual impact of development, as well as the impact on resources like forestry and hydrology alongside the impact on habitats for animal and plant life. Combined with the move towards Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) where development must leave the environment not just restored but improved, the need to embed environmental experts in all stages of the planning process has never been higher.

In England, Biodiversity Net Gain is already mandated, Europe is progressing to legislation in the next six months and the United States is following a similar path with significant momentum in legislation to tackle environmental challenges, focusing on wildlife and plant species protection and restoration. The Recovering America's Wildlife Act (RAWA) of 2022, designed to fund conservation nationwide, passed the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate despite bipartisan support. Its advocates aim to reintroduce it in the 118th Congress. Additionally, the Safeguarding America's Future and Environment (SAFE) Act, introduced in 2021, addresses the impact of extreme weather and climate change on the nation's fish, wildlife, and plants.

However, engaging environmental experts pays dividends beyond meeting new legislative requirements including greater project efficiency, accelerating and reducing project risk and creating real advantages for a smooth permitting (or consenting) process.

This blog post explores the indispensable role of environmental experts in infrastructure development, highlighting their impact on project efficiency, community engagement, and regulatory compliance.

Environmental experts assess infrastructure risks

A fundamental part of the environmental expert's role in infrastructure planning is the initial screening to determine whether the environmental and social impact of the development project requires an EIA. During this screening process, the environmental expert will look at potential environmental blockers, hazards, and ‘no-go’ areas that the development team cannot consider as routing or siting options for pipelines, overhead lines, substations, or cabling. The expert will also model the impact that infrastructure could have on surrounding ecosystems including heritage sites, landscapes and hydrology and suggest ways to mitigate this impact and minimise permitting requirements.

Engaging with the expert early in the process allows for the creation of a robust permitting narrative demonstrating options taken forward and alternative options considered, with routes likely to minimise environmental impact coming to the fore from the start. In the EIA process, it’s essential to demonstrate that nuanced options have been explored before the final plan is chosen, for the choice to feel meaningful. If the explored alternatives are clearly not viable, questions will be raised later about the quality of work conducted during the planning phase.

Using traditional methods, time can be wasted. Information relating to environmental impact can sometimes be added after planning is largely complete, for example after a site survey, meaning that months of work may need to be reversed as engineers and project planners return to the drawing board. In other cases environmental and permitting work happens before engineering gets involved, telescoping the time available for other considerations. When this occurs very late in the process, there can be financial consequences, either because continuing with the original plan necessitates the purchase of biodiversity credits or an offset against the baseline, or the developer needs to pay to traverse an area, for example, an area of commercial forestry. In some instances, projects can get stuck at the permitting stage due to objections from the public. When a developer cannot provide evidence as to why certain scenarios for an infrastructure project have been rejected, this can have legal consequences and result in fines or the project stalling indefinitely.

Using new technology platforms like Optioneer can help mitigate many of these issues by:

  • Allowing detailed input from an environmental expert earlier in infrastructure projects.
  • Adding environmental datasets to the project ranging from protected habitats to heritage, hydrology to landscape, giving visibility of areas to avoid.
  • Allowing constraint weighting in line with policy recommendations.
  • Having all the data in one place, like Optioneer, where the engineering team can see constraints and iterate their plans accordingly, accelerates the creation of a viable plan.

Environmental experts engage with the community

Beyond risk assessment, environmental experts play a vital role in bridging the gap between infrastructure projects and the communities they affect. They are instrumental in communicating project goals and potential impacts, gathering public feedback, and building trust through transparency. This public engagement is crucial for garnering support and mitigating objections that could delay or derail projects.

Public approval is necessary for successful permitting. Therefore, the environmental experts' opinions can be hugely useful to the wider project team as their priorities are more likely to reflect those of the community, statutory stakeholders and regulators. Keeping their opinion in the mix earlier and throughout allows the team to move forward with the concerns of stakeholders front of mind.

Gathering feedback from local stakeholders is also a crucial aspect of their role. The ‘public’ at public consultations can include project managers, engineers and others with specialist knowledge. Challenges raised can be highly technical. The feedback loop between the environmental expert and the project team allows for the adjustment of project plans to address public concerns, further enhancing community support and reducing opposition.

Automated tools like Optioneer can be extremely useful to environmental experts by:

  • Helping them create the materials they need to present to the public from the same platform the wider team uses to develop the project plan, reducing miscommunication and error.
  • Allowing public consultation feedback to be added to the same project space, where it’s visible to all team members.
  • Allowing new information specific to the project region, discovered via local knowledge, to be layered with existing data as a new constraint, speeding up iteration.
  • Providing complete transparency to the public and stakeholders regarding decisions, with a record of all scenarios.

Environmental experts coordinate with other stakeholders

The interdisciplinary nature of infrastructure projects requires coordination between various teams and stakeholders. Environmental experts act as a hub for project communication because of their unique position in the scope of the infrastructure project.

They work directly with engineering teams helping them create and iterate the plan for the development, discussing routing and siting options and giving guidance on ‘no go’ areas. They also partner with legal teams to ensure environmental regulatory compliance and liaise with government agencies overseeing infrastructure projects.

The net casts wider and, in the UK, includes government departments like The Forestry Commission, charities like English Heritage, executive non-departmental public bodies like Historic England and NGOs with a variety of missions and roles. Many NGOs are involved with conservation and habitat management like RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. Some, like The Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, hold sway with a range of other stakeholders like government ministers, and the National Farmers Union. The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, The Woodland Trust, and Plantlife International own nature reserves and manage land. Some NGOs are influential at an international level like WWF, Greenpeace, and Birdlife International.

The environmental expert sits at the hub of this complex web of connected organisations. Some may own the land proposed for routing; others may be involved in lobbying or leading protests, while others may liaise in an advisory capacity concerning natural habitats. All these threads are pulled together by the environmental expert and distilled into information that can be utilised in project planning and iteration.

The Central Role of Environmental Experts

Environmental experts are the linchpins of effective infrastructure planning teams, offering a multidimensional perspective encompassing ecological sustainability, regulatory compliance, and community engagement. Their expertise ensures that infrastructure projects are technically feasible, economically viable, environmentally responsible, and socially acceptable.

Infrastructure projects stall because of permitting issues often connected to public perception, rather than engineering or cost considerations. Projects designed with the early and frequent input of environmental experts enjoy a de-risked critical path, face fewer regulatory hurdles and garner greater public support.

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