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
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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)

Transparency and Transmission: Getting to Real Facts

Which of the following factors should weigh most heavily as we make decisions about our electric service: engineering realities, $$$, political pride, or public protest?

Our Water & Light utility knows how to ensure reliable service. This is evidenced by its earning the Diamond Level Reliable Public Power Provider designation from the American Public Power Association earlier this year. This is the highest level of this award, which recognizes operational excellence.

Yet at least three of our council members – all of whom opposed the building of the transmission line known as Option A – have expressed a lack of trust in our staff and criticized them for past planning. (See for example, Council minutes 1/16/18, pp.29-30; 3/5/18, p.18, 3/9/18, p. 14).

The Council cancelled Option A with no alternative plan in place. The monies raised for the construction of that line are being redirected elsewhere as some on the Council suggest maybe no line will be needed.  (Council Minutes, 1/2/18, pp. 12-13). Various Council members have also offered opinions on how the system might be engineered in the context of appointing a special energy planning task force, and directing it to study a range of issues. (Council Minutes, 3/5/18, pp. 17-21; 3/19/18, pp. 13-18). There is some evidence that staff may be reluctant to speak up and clearly share their concerns. (Council minutes, 7/16/18, p. 32).

When it comes to making good decisions about our infrastructure, we need to ensure that relevant information is widely shared with the public, and done so in an accurate, timely, comprehensive and easily understandable way. That is unlikely to happen if we downplay the expertise of our staff, rewrite the history of a project, or fail to discuss openly the costs and risks associated with delay.

The Chamber of Commerce in endorsing a recent proposal to issue bonds to improve our water and sewer system, pledged that going forward it would work to ensure greater transparency and accountability on infrastructure projects. Let’s hope the Chamber follows through.

Transparency and Transmission: Option E Costs More

The City Council did not have an alternate plan in place to ensure electric service reliability when in January 2016 it “paused” construction of the Mill Creek substation and related transmission lines. That project, which was intended to address load growth in the South and Southwest, was known as “Option A”.  Starting in mid 2016, the Council decided to study the possibility of instead building a transmission line in north Columbia. This proposal was dubbed “Option E”. Suggestions were made that Option E was likely to be less costly than Option A.  “Option E” did not, however, address the Mill Creek substation or the substation overloading that the new substation was intended to address.

In the fall of 2017, almost a year and a half after the “pause”, the Council approved, at a combined cost of almost $200,000, two consulting contracts related to electric service. The first, a contract to look at the engineering and estimated cost of “Option E” was awarded to Burns & McDonnell.  The second, a contract to review electric service loads and electric distribution needs, was awarded to Quanta Technology. Both consultants sent their final reports to the City in July, 2018. We recently received these reports  through an open records request.

The cost estimates provided by Burns & McDonnell show Option E to be over $10,000,000 more expensive than the “paused” line, known as Option A.

The report also calls into question other arguments made by Council members who voted to pause Option A. For example, the Burns & McDonnell report confirms that the staff’s choice of metal poles for a 164 kV line was sound. (As the report states on “wood vertical monopole construction is impractical, as structure loading would exceed the capacity of an H6 wood pole” (p. 4-5); and also observes on p. 4-6: “[s]teel generally has a longer service life than wood and is not subject to rot, woodpecker damage, or other premature structure deterioration”). The report also documents the fact that Option E, like Option A, would impact residential neighborhoods (p. 7-2).  Although the report concludes that the “proposed route is feasible,” it qualified that conclusion, stating “there are a number of route obstructions which will need to be addressed and will ultimately have additional costs that would not be recognized from an unobstructed route” (p. 9-1).

Even though the Quanta report focused on overall system loads and did not look at substation level forecasts, it identifies the Perche Creek substation as needing careful monitoring during July as well as the creation of “an offloading schedule that should be triggered in case category P1 operation conditions occur (e.g. transformer failure)”. Transformers are generally manufactured for a 20 to 30 year life.  The oldest transformer at Perche Creek was manufactured in 1968, and the most recent in 1997.  The other two were manufactured in 1983 and 1986.

Another concern raised by the Quanta report is its suggestion that the City might look at changing the methodology traditionally used to ensure reliability when calculating the load serving capacity of its substations.  The purpose of  substituting a new methodology would be to “provide the opportunity to defer substation investment” (p. 29). Quanta goes on to note that selection of an alternate methodology would be dependent on “the level of risk tolerance which they [Water & Light] have regarding substation operation.”

What is our risk tolerance when it comes to electric service outages? Our homes, our businesses, and our medical facilities are entirely dependent on reliable on electricity.  The costs of an extended outage would be significant.  How close do we want to come?  The question should not be how to defer needed investments for as long as possible, but to ensure reliable service, both currently and for the long term.  As we have stated before, we need a decision-making approach that that is more proactive, transparent, and focused on ensuring our infrastructure needs are timely met in a cost-effective way.  Suggestions for how we might improve on the current process are welcome.

Keeping An Eye On Our Electric Service

We have previously discussed the Council’s ongoing failure to address the overloading of the substations that serve the South and Southwest and also affect power downtown. The overloading has only gotten worse. In 2015 the Perche Creek substation exceeded its loading goal by 22%. In 2017, that number was 29%. In July of 2018, it was 48%. Perche Creek was not the only substation to exceed its loading goals in July. Blue Ridge, Rebel Hill, and the Power Plant all exceeded 100% of their loading goals. Hinkson Creek was at 99%.

Electric systems must have reserve capacity for times of high loads and/or problems with the system such as those caused by storms, to avoid outages. This overloading is a current issue, not one for future planning. We were lucky this year. What might have happened had we had longer stretches of extreme heat as we did in 2011?

Until put on hold by the City Council, installation of the Mill Creek substation was part of Water & Light’s contingency plan to keep the system up and running under adverse conditions. (Compare these 2016 maps which show the system without Mill Creek, and with its addition.)  Load shedding” is a focus of the current plan. This was explained to the City Council in January 2018, although it did not draw much discussion. Where would outages occur? Depending on where the load needed to be dropped, outages would start with the circuits tied to that particular substation and after that, would occur on circuits identified “from a priority or community impact relationship.” (Minutes, January 2, 2018, pp. 13 and 14.)

How would your business, residence, or our community be affected by an extended outage? Is this a risk we are willing to simply live with? If not, speak up! Electric infrastructure takes time to plan and install. We have 11 months before next summer. This is an urgent issue that needs ongoing attention.  Can we develop an action plan for Vision: Lights On!?