Good communication makes good neighbors

An AEP crew preparing to launch the $337 million Kanawha Valley Area Reinforcement Project teamed with wildlife agencies to create a unique communication plan that balances the need for a growing electric grid with respect for area customers and nature lovers.

With input from several area groups, AEP has created a pamphlet that shares construction details with park visitors, a website that provides up-to-the-minute construction locations and a hotline for park visitors to call with questions or concerns.

The reinforcement project includes 50 miles of transmission rebuild, including 6 miles that go directly through the Kanawha State Forest – a popular hiking and camping destination.

Retirement of aging power plants in the Kanawha and Ohio Valleys has changed the way power flows across the transmission grid, prompting the three-year project that will ensure reliable service while the team replaces about 50 transmission structures with 20 new ones on existing right-of-way.

AEP knows how important the park and recreational activities it provides are to its visitors.

“There was no question about what we had to do to be good neighbors,” said Project Manager Shawn Smith. “We knew we needed to do whatever necessary to respect the environment and minimize our impact on those who frequent the park.”

So instead of devising a plan that would feature lengthy trail and access restrictions, AEP asked the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, the organization that manages the forest, for its input.

“We simply reached out to them,” Smith said. “We filled them in on what we needed to do and asked what questions or concerns they had. We wanted to figure out a way to work together to make this project easier on both parties.”

What developed was a great working relationship.

Forest officials introduced AEP to members of the Kanawha State Forest Foundation, a group devoted to promoting, preserving and protecting the forest’s natural qualities.

With their guidance, AEP developed a communication plan that would allow construction and nature to coexist.

“We all recognized that this project needed to be done because we all want a better electrical grid,” said Kanawha State Forest Foundation Board Member, Doug Atkins. “Up to this point, AEP has been a great partner in helping to develop a plan that would make this work as accommodating as possible to those that frequent the park. And it wasn’t just one meeting. We’ve developed a strong working relationship and have continued to meet and collaborate on issues as they come up. I’ve really enjoyed working with the team.”

A year into the construction phase, AEP has received no construction complaints from visitors. With an estimated completion timeframe of summer 2017 for the work in the Forest to be completed, the team understands the communication channels must stay open and active to keep issues down.

“We worked really hard to get to this point in the project,” Smith said. “It feels good to know that the work we are doing is causing very minimal impact to the park’s visitors.”