Despite a recent climate of deregulation, electric and gas energy companies still face a myriad of operational challenges when complying with internal and external environmental requirements. Overcoming these hurdles will require progressive energy providers to embrace unique solutions.

Streamlining the Environmental Permitting Process

Getting caught up in the resource agency regulatory cycle costs both time and money; however, this can be mitigated through upfront preliminary analysis well before the permitting process even begins. The first strategy involves incorporating automated tools to gain clarity on project locations during the initial due diligence phase.

Using desktop GIS-based analysis tools in collaboration with in-house environmental technical teams ultimately reduces field time and allows energy companies to focus on pinpointing challenging areas. Progressive utilities adopt these techniques in order to efficiently operate and maintain their utility network by prioritizing complex permits within their schedules, which ultimately reduces costs and focuses interface with environmental resource agency staff.

Effective utilities also place stakeholder engagement and interactions with permitting agencies as a top concern, engaging with these entities both early on and often throughout the project life cycle. This develops a rapport and trust with agency representatives that can work in favor of the overall project schedule.

Strong working relationships contribute to keeping project schedules on track, while reducing costs and efficiently maintaining energy infrastructure. When all of these pieces fall into place, it is much easier to complete projects on time and continue on to the next ones.

Environmental Challenges of an Aging Infrastructure

As an increasing number of renewable energy sources come online, traditional means of energy generation are being retired. Based on statistics reported to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal power plants and natural gas steam turbines accounted for 47 percent and 26 percent, respectively, of all utility-scale power plant retirements from 2008 through 2017. In this changing landscape, the struggle becomes how to successfully decommission or retrofit aging utility assets.

To maximize site value, energy developers are approaching these sites with a holistic perspective of future potential. Some site assets may continue to be valuable to the current utility owner, while others would generate more value by being sold to new owners for redevelopment or reuse.

To determine whether demolition or an upgrade is most appropriate, environmental regulations and implications are weighed against technology and budgetary concerns. Factors such as proximity to currently operating units, and even labor availability, may affect final plans. Any assessment should also highlight critical operational issues and explore potential approaches for mitigating impacts.

Integrate Operational Excellence with Environmental

Incorporating strong environmental practices into everyday operations is essential not only for regulatory compliance, but also for an energy provider’s bottom line. When a provider strikes a balance between efficient operations and environmental compliance, it is less likely to encounter environmental mishaps that result in costly consequences, such as legal challenges or project delays. Preventing environmental disasters also increases positive relations with utility customers and the general public.

Building good relationships between operations and environmental staff is the key to achieving this balance. But communication between these internal departments can be a challenge, as operations typically has one set of goals, and environmental has another.

Progressive companies are now making an increased effort toward internal collaboration. Sometimes this can be achieved simply by bringing both sides to the table to develop requirements and establish goals they both can understand. Programs that encourage teamwork, rather than allowing isolation, help break down preconceived notions that the environmental department is just trying to stonewall project implementation or create obstacles to operations.

Ultimately, operations and environmental managers and staff can develop mutually beneficial relationships that result in better training, improved regulatory compliance and more efficient execution of common goals.

Economic and environmental realities will continue to drive the transition toward sustainable methods of energy production. Efforts to streamline the permitting process, maximize the value of aging infrastructure and integrate environmental practices in daily operations will enable energy companies to maintain operational excellence in this evolving age.


Following best practices for environmental challenges — like managing avian mortality within a wind farm — can be a key for project success. Learn more in our project profile.

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Chris Knopp, a senior project manager at Burns & McDonnell, specializes in environmental compliance and permitting on major renewable energy projects, as well as general land planning and development.