Panel Paper: Characterizing Conflict in Siting Electricity Transmission Lines

Saturday, November 9, 2019
Plaza Building: Lobby Level, Director's Row J (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jongeun You, Jill Yordy, Christopher Weible, Kyudong Park, Tanya Heikkila and Duncan Gilchrist, University of Colorado, Denver

The quality and reliability of electricity transmission lines affect electricity supply. Investment in transmission infrastructure has soared over the last decade, and transmission facilities still require substantial repair and replacement (EIA 2018). In addition to outdated issues, there are two primary reasons for this. First, the best sources of renewable energy are separated by long distances from major load centers. Second, modern electrical grids are designed for traditional sources of power generation (e.g., ancillary services).

However, the challenges in updating transmission facilities in the U.S. are less technical and more political. Transmission development is often delayed or blocked by siting challenges, and construction costs are routinely increased by compromising conflict. Past research examined several factors associated with opposition from residents including NIMBY reactions (Dear 1992), public trust issues (Fast & Mabee 2015), and place attachments (Devine-Wright 2011). Yet, the literatures on such conflicts face limitations including the tendency for researchers to assume that high conflict exists without corroborating evidence, over-reliance on surveys and small-n case studies, and the lack of a systematic approach to compare policy conflicts.

This paper explores the characteristics of varying levels of policy conflicts in transmission siting. Guided by the Advocacy Coalitions Framework and the Policy Conflict Framework, we conduct a comparative analysis to answer two questions: 1) what factors are associated with the variation in the intensity of policy conflict?; and 2) how do policy actors try to influence the siting of transmission projects of varying conflict intensity levels?

The paper analyzes and compares 20 transmission projects in the U.S. that were under construction in 2018. The data sources are over 500 newspaper articles that span the entire life of those projects.

To examine the research questions, we employ two complementary methods. To answer the first question, we use MaxQDA software to conduct a semi-automated analysis of all of the newspaper articles from the 20 transmission projects, using a text-mining dictionary of conflict words (Yi et al. 2019). This provides an indicator of the variance in conflict intensity across the different projects. We also collect data on various characteristics of the projects (e.g., project ownership, socio-demographic characteristics of project locations) to assess factors associated with conflict intensity. To answer the second question, we explore a subset of these cases in depth by manually coding newspapers articles for two high-, two medium-, and two low conflict projects. We use Discourse Network Analyzer software to code policy actors, their positions on transmission lines, and their behaviors. Both methods offer integral insights on the variance in conflict characteristics across different scales of analysis.

This research extends the literature on policy conflicts and energy siting challenges. It contributes to our theoretical understanding of the nature of policy conflicts through a comparative analysis of 20 cases. In terms of practical implication, the study can help policymakers to understand better the characteristics of policy conflicts and how those characteristics vary by level of conflict intensity. Methodologically, the paper also contributes to the APPAM community by developing coding protocols for network analyses.