Vision Lights On! More on Transparency and Transmission

Following various public comment and expressions of concern, Council requested a “report on the electric capacity and load serving reliability of the Perche Creek substation” which it received at its meeting on October 7, 2019. The report does not focus on the specific loads in the area, although it notes those are being studied.  The report does note that

“There is some concern that recent load patterns may not be representative of a ‘worst-case’ for the City.  The City has not experienced extended temperatures of 105 degrees or greater since it set its all-time peak in the summer of 2011.”

Even though the report focuses on potential loss of only one transformer and does not address a complete outage at the substation, it does reference its “Load Shed Plan” for certain contingencies.  Under that plan “[r]esidential customers are targeted to be shed first while critical services such as hospitals, fire stations and the water and wastewater treatment plants are shed last.”

At least two citizens with extensive experience in the field have submitted responses to the Council pointing out issues ignored in the report. You can review those responses here (first response) and here (second response).

In other developments worth noting, the Integrated Electric Resource and Master Plan Task Force, which was appointed by the Council, issued an RFP requesting, as part of the scope of work, a review of the existing standards of reliability. This tracks the concern we noted in an earlier post that the City might look to justify the deferral of needed investment in its transmission infrastructure by simply changing the methodology traditionally used to ensure reliability.  In July of this year the Council also approved a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP) which includes the following recommendations: (i) “moving towards 100% renewable electricity generation”, (ii) elimination of the current limits on rate increases caused by the purchase of more expensive renewable sources, and (iii) using storage batteries and community microgrids to support grid resilience and promote reliability (see pp. 48-49). The plan did not include any analysis of the costs or effects of these recommendations. The first two of these recommendations were among the CAAP priorities that were also reviewed by the Council on October 7, 2019.

So where are we going with our electric service?  Will we have an true open discussion of the trade-offs between cost, reliability, and available options or will some options like the transmission line simply remain off the table?  What is our risk tolerance?  And will we have a full accounting of the costs associated with the Council’s hasty decision to “pause” the transmission line in 2016, including an accounting of costs associated with opportunities lost when a project that was approved by the voters, on-time, and on-budget, was simply set aside.

 

Inequities Harm Us All

ColumbiaMODemographics (2)

The need to recognize, and address, inequities in Columbia was one of three themes identified by citizens in the discussions that led up to the development of our community dialogue guide, “Are We An Us?” Significant inequities continue to exist, as illustrated in the infographic above. This infographic was shared with us by Tyree Byndom, a former resident of Columbia and community leader, and has recently returned.  In the time he was away from Columbia, Tyree started a coaching firm and teamed up with a client to co-found a website on black demographics.

As citizens we cannot afford to be indifferent to these inequities or simply assume they will resolve as a result of efforts by city government or various nonprofits. Indifference builds distrust within our community, and erodes community ties.

Although there are have been several projects undertaken by the city and others, particularly in the areas of affordable housing, business development, and neighborhood outreach, these fall well short of a community commitment to fully resolving the inequities that exist. As one participant observed: “There are many, very good initiatives taking place, but no-one has a holistic understanding of all of the efforts. To too many individuals it looks like nothing is happening and no-one cares.”

One thing that would help is more day to day interactions among people who live in different neighborhoods. Consider these comments from past dialogues: “We don’t know our neighbors.” “We get into niches that fit us too well.” “People want to stay in their comfort zone.” “City being divided like St.Louis with north and south.” “De facto segregation here.””People don’t trust other people.” Indifference leads to isolation, and isolation leads to fear and distrust. It also prevents the informal individual relationships that create “social capital”.

What can a concerned citizen do?

  • One you can be aware.
  • Two you can learn more about the systems and history that have led to the inequities illustrated in the infographic above.
  • Three you can take action by asking hard questions, connecting with others, and learning about the programs that are out there (and then using them or referring others).
  • Fourth you can consciously work to meet your neighbors throughout the city. How do you do that? You can plan or attend an event, you can call a contractor listed on the city’s minority business site, you can strike up a conversation when you are out and about, or reach out to a community organization you haven’t yet worked with and invite them to yours.

Keep in mind that social ties are often what drive opportunity. Creating those ties is one of our responsibilities as community members.

In subsequent posts we will interview various community members who are working in this area and present their thoughts on how we got here and how we might go forward together, both to build bridges, and to resolve the systemic inequities that exist in our community.

You are invited to share your own ideas in the comment section below.

Vision Lights On! Transparency, Transmission, and Summer Heat

Although the words “transparency” and “infrastructure” were used a lot in the recent mayoral election, there was little discussion of the inadequate electric infrastructure on the southwest side of Columbia. June was thankfully cool.  But as the summer heats up, the risk of outages returns.  As we have noted before, we have an aging substation serving much of the southwest side and more than one transmission line at risk (lacking needed redundancy) in the summer heat.

Most of us are used to purchasing insurance or taking proactive, protective steps when faced with a significant risk of loss.  That is essentially what voters approved in 2015 when voting for bond funds that were to be used to fix our inadequate electric infrastructure in south Columbia.  That is what the City Council was doing when it first approved the construction of a new, strategically located, substation and transmission line, and then issued bonds, and approved a related increase in rates. The new substation and connected lines were to have been finished by now.

Unfortunately, in January 2016 the Council chose to “pause” construction with no alternative plan in place.  In effect, the City Council canceled our insurance even though we have continued to pay the bills through the increased rates.  We also paid approximately $200,000 for studies which confirmed both the substation overloading and the fact that delays are costing us significantly.  Yet these studies and their implications were never publicly addressed.

Instead, the Council has added additional load by approving construction of the Westbury subdivision, sidelined our experienced staff on planning issues by referring these to a citizen commission whose members are appointed by the Council, and allowed an exodus of experienced line workers (who work to restore service when outages occur) by not paying competitive salaries. These actions only increase the risk and the need to find solutions.

What the Council does like to talk about is renewable energy.  Although renewable energy resources serve an important role in our electric system, they do not eliminate the need for investment in our transmission facilities. Ensuring adequate and reliable electric service presents many complex issues and easy answers are usually wrong. Accurate information and attention to engineering realities are needed if we are to find a way forward.

As we meet the candidates for City Manager, consider the following:  Is there a candidate who is willing to challenge the Council when it fails to consider issues that affect our health and welfare?  Or when it oversteps the bounds of our Council – Manager form of government? Or when it works to undermine our professional staff? Who is willing to talk openly and honestly to the public about both costs and risks associated with infrastructure needs and failures?  Who might move us forward?

 

Vision Lights On! Ignoring Reality

On February 4, 2019, the City Council voted for yet another development on the Southwest side. That development would place additional stress on already overloaded electric infrastructure in this part of town. Before voting, they received the warning copied below from a retired Water & Light executive.  Of course it was ignored.

Why should we be concerned about our electric infrastructure?  Keep reading! And join in Vision Lights On!

Good Morning,
Because the City Council has failed to address the electric load issue in the south part of Columbia, further development puts all southern Columbia residents at risk of outages, particularly during the summer peak season.  All development should be stopped until that issue is addressed.
I do not live in the area impacted by this overloading (or development) and I can not attend the Council meeting tomorrow night but I wanted to make you aware of this issue since it is not being addressed.
The proposed development would receive power from the Perche Substation.  That substation is loaded over 150% of design capacity.  The electric system requires redundancy.  Substations should never be loaded to the point that if one transformer fails, the load can’t be switched to another transformer.  At the Perche Substation, that point was reached several years ago and if something happens now a prolonged outage would occur.
The bond issue, that citizens passed by a large majority in 2015, would have addressed the issue by building a new substation in south Columbia; off-loading the current overloading; and, built a second transmission line to the Perche Substation (currently there is only one transmission line to Perche).  The original plan would have had the work completed by late spring 2017.
Currently there is no decision on what is to be done to address the overloading across south Columbia, yet development continues without addressing the consequences.   A study was completed several months ago that showed that the “Option E”, proposed by the mayor, would have cost nearly double the original Option A; however, that report has not been publicly discussed and nothing is being done to address the issue.
The only way this development could be serviced without attaching to the Perche Substation would be to build an “express” feeder from the Harmony Substation.  That would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (maybe over a million) more than connecting to Perche.
I am retired now, but was responsible for forecasting electric system load.  Some Council members insist that the load hasn’t grown and therefore there isn’t an issue in southern Columbia.  There are two major flaws in that argument:
1. The historic system load occurred when the actual temperature reached 105 and the nighttime temperature never got below 80.  The recent highest summer temperatures have not exceeded 100.  Until similar high temperatures occur the actual system load can only be projected.
2. The forecast is for the “system” not for individual substations.  To be connected to the larger national grid, electric utilities have to forecast how much energy will flow into their system (transmission system) during peak conditions (subject to fines for failure).  Forecasting loads on individual substations (the distribution system) is not regulated and was not done.  As I stated previously Perche is well beyond design criteria that allows redundancy in the system.
This development should not even be discussed until the City Council addresses the electric system overloading in south Columbia.
A local attorney, with electric utility experience, has been attempting to educate the public on this issue.  For more information go to the following link
Jim Windsor
Assistant Director of Utilities – Retired

Vision Lights On! Paying Our Line Workers

Over the next few weeks as part of our Vision Lights On! effort we will be interviewing community members knowledgeable about the technical side of getting electricity to your house. Today’s guest is Jim Windsor.

1C1C: Jim, tell us a little about your background:

Jim: I retired about a year ago as assistant director of utilities for Columbia.  I started my almost 36 year career educating people on energy efficiency.  Most of my career was in the rate design, forecasting and financial management side of the utility.

1C1C: You have raised questions at the City Council about how we are paying our line workers. First tell me what does a line worker do?

Jim:  Line workers are responsible for the construction and maintenance of the electric system.  Their job is a physically demanding and extremely dangerous job, where mistakes can result in serious injury or death. Their job requires skill and training.  Line workers have to complete a four year apprenticeship before becoming a line worker.  It takes several more years of experience for the line worker to fully understand the job.  That job can be anything from fixing a street light; finding and fixing a fault in an underground feeder; building a new feeder to serve additional customers; or, going out in a storm to address an outage caused by the severe conditions. There is not a “normal day”, it is determined by the requirements of the day.

In addition to the line workers, there are also line foreman and apprentices that make up a crew.  No other City employees work on the hundreds of miles of electric system for the over 50,000 electric customers served by Water & Light.

1C1C: What is the issue with pay? Why should we care about paying market rates?

Jim:  Very simply, we are losing trained personnel to other utilities. As assistant director, I signed off on employee resignations by the director was out of town.  That was where I saw the significant problem of non-competitive pay when I signed off on the resignation of three line workers in one day.  The people that left were happy working for Columbia, but when other utilities offer them $10,000 or $20,000 more per year, they must think about what is best for their families.

Many people remember the wind event that occurred in July 2014.  At that time, there were 12 line foreman, 18 line workers and 11 apprentices.  During the recent snow event, there were only 11 line foreman, 10 line workers and 8 apprentices.  You should also know that five of the line foreman can retire any time they choose.

That is a significant loss of people. And in addition to people, Columbia lost years of experience that can’t be replaced.  The knowledge and experience of line workers that would move into line foreman positions have been lost because some of the best and most experienced line workers have gone to other utilities.

1C1C: How does this affect us as utility customers?

Jim: One effect should be apparent from the difference in available people:  Longer outages when major storms occur because the people aren’t there to respond.

What isn’t as obvious:  Maintenance doesn’t get done as quickly because there aren’t enough people.  “Contract crews” are being paid over twice as much to do work that fully staffed in-house crews could do.  The knowledge and experience of line workers that would move into line foreman positions have been lost because some of the best and most experience line workers have gone to other utilities.

1C1C: Can you think of analogy for this situation to help the reader better understand why it’s important for Council to address this pay issue.

Jim: Council “waiting on a study” or “waiting for the next budget year” is like you going out one morning and discovering a large gash in the side of one front tire.  Instead of immediately fixing it, you think “I have to get my car inspected in 9 months, I’ll wait until then”; or, “I was planning on replacing all four tires next year, it will be fine until then.” You are putting yourself at an unnecessary risk. And you are inviting unnecessary and expensive costs if the risk materializes.

1C1C: What are your recommendations for proceeding?

Jim: Columbia for some reason adopted the policy  of only paying the median of the competitive market in salary.  That policy tells everyone that half of the market is willing to pay more that the City of Columbia.  I recommend getting rid of the policy of paying the median of the competitive market.  The previous personnel study showed what the competitive salary should be and that was used as the top of the line worker salary range.  The City should be paying enough to keep existing line workers; attract qualified line workers from other utilities; and bring back some of the ones that have recently left.

1C1C: Are there other things about our electric service that concern you?

Jim:  Certainly.  The pay issue is a concern for many other important positions and must be addressed throughout the utility.  As an example, an additional electric engineer was approved for the 2018 budget year, but the utility has never been able to hire someone because it won’t offer a competitive salary.

The failure of the Council to address the system overloading in south Columbia is also a huge issue. Council stopped the substation and transmission project passed by voters in 2015 but continues to approve more and more development in south Columbia.  Some members of the Council insist that that project isn’t necessary because load hasn’t grown as once projected.  That is simply not true. The forecast they reference was for the total system, not for the distribution system off each substation.  I note that, the last system peak occurred when the actual temperature reached 105 degrees and the nighttime temperature never got below 80.  Although those conditions haven’t occurred since, the potential load has increased significantly.  I was responsible for load forecasting.  The substations serving south Columbia are overloaded.  Perche Creek, which serves the south west side of Columbia, is at 150% of its loading goal during the summer peak.  More development has been approved that would attach to that substation.  This issue must be addressed, or development needs to stop, or we will live with an ever increasing risk of significant outages and the costs and disruptions of those outages that occur.

1C1C: Thank you so much for your time.

 

Speak Up For Basic Services

It’s more than 72 hours since the snow started to fall on Friday and our street isn’t plowed.  Is yours?  On Friday the City reported that 7 of its plows were inoperable for “mechanical reasons”.  This morning (Monday) it reported that approximately 40 to 50% of residential streets had been cleared.  That means significant numbers were not cleared. At some point on Saturday over 8,000 people were without power.  If you have been reading the news, then you know Columbia has been losing the workers who operate garbage trucks and snowplows, and electric linemen because of a failure to pay competitive salaries.  If you have been reading this blog, then you know that the City has also been failing to make adequate investment in its electric infrastructure. And if you drive our roads you are familiar with potholes.

Every resident’s quality of life, and the economic health of our businesses, is affected by the City’s ability to effectively and affordably deliver basic services including road maintenance, electricity, water and sanitation, and trash pick up.  It’s past time for the City Council to dedicate more time and attention to our basic services.

Later this month, the City is holding three Strategic Plan Focus Groups: January 23rd, 24th, and 28th.  Those attending will be asked to comment on the City’s top priorities for its 2019-2022 Strategic Plan.  They will also be asked about policies and funding priorities.  Please consider signing up and advocating for our basic services.

All three meetings will be held at the Activity and Recreation Center, 1701 W. Ash St. at the following times.

  • Wednesday, January 23rd, dinner at 5:30 pm, focus group from 6:00 – 7:30 pm
  • Thursday, January 24th, dinner at 6:00 pm, focus group from 6:30 – 8:00 pm
  • Monday, January 28th, dinner at 6:30 pm, focus group from 7:00 – 8:30 pm

Dinner will be served, childcare will be provided, transportation is available, and each participant will receive a $25 gift card.

For more information and to register, please contact Carol Rhodes at Carol.Rhodes@como.gov or 573-874-7219.

Vision Lights On! Revisited

As a recent report from KOMU illustrates, Columbia is stuck in infrastructure limbo with respect to needed investment in its transmission lines and substations.  The report shows the council members who helped stop Option A, and who championed and then quietly abandoned Option E, deflecting questions by misquoting Water & Light and punting to a recently established committee whose chairperson stated it was not looking at transmission needs.

As has been explained in prior posts, we do need to strengthen our electric infrastructure now and also develop a clear plan for the future.  Ignoring this issue is like putting off buying auto insurance because there hasn’t been a crash “yet”.  Citizens deserve — but have not been getting — straightforward information, ongoing updates, and solutions that will keep the electrical infrastructure of Columbia up to par.

We invite those of you who are concerned and interested in finding a solution to join us in pursuing Vision: Lights On!  Follow this blog for future updates.

For those who are learning the history of this issue, here is an index of past posts on this topic.

Transparency and Transmission: Getting to Real Facts (9/27/18)

Transparency and Transmission: Option E Costs More (9/05/18)

More on Transmission (2/20/18)

Keeping An Eye On Our Electric Service (8/21/18)

Vision: Lights On! (2/26/18)

Our Infrastructure: Why So Little Energy Moving Forward? (7/11/17)

What Could Help Us Move Forward? (12/19/16)

Information, Misinformation, Statesmen And Politics (11/15/16)

Information And Misinformation – 1 (10/20/16)

Information And Misinformation – 2 (11/06/16)

Information And Misinformation – 3 (11/07/16)

You Can Make A Difference (10/15/16)

Improving Our Infrastructure – You Can Help! (9/19/16)

The Transmission Line: Many Questions (9/07/16)