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.

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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!?

How Do We Make Wise Choices?

Several months ago, a group of citizens participating in a class titled “Systems and Citizens’ at MU’s Osher Institute  were discussing many of the difficult issues facing our communities. We discussed how interconnected many of the issues are, and how hard it can be to find a way forward in an atmosphere of extreme partisanship. As the class came to a close, members expressed an interest in continuing to work together and to develop a set of forms that could help us to better evaluate both political candidates (or elected officials) and the policies they propose.  The result was this  citizen’s guide titled “How Do We Make Wise Choices?”  Regardless of your political views, we invite you to download it, use it, discuss it with your friends, and help us to improve it by leaving your thoughts and suggestions in the comment box below.

Join The NAACP On May 22, 2018

Over the last few months, the Columbia NAACP has been leading a series of community engagement meetings on the topics of policing, equity, and civility. In between NAACP leaders have met with the police chief and City Manager for additional dialogue. This Tuesday, May 22, from 7 to 9 pm the NAACP  will again be hosting a forum at Second Missionary Baptist Church (407 E. Broadway).

At Tuesday’s forum you will hear an update on community policing and on the implementation of recommendations from previous meetings.  After the initial presentations, break out groups will discuss and make recommendations on specific community topics including mental health, racial profiling, minority jobs and entrepreneurship, and civility and accountability.

Join in, share your thoughts and help make Columbia a better place!

WHAT:  Community Dialogue
WHEN:  Tuesday May 22, 2018, 7 to 9 pm
WHERE:  Second Missionary Baptist Church, 407 E. Broadway, Columbia, MO

Vision: Lights On!

In contrast to the lack of open dialogue on our electric infrastructure needs, the council has been convening public meetings around the City to talk about their new “Vision Zero” initiative to reduce traffic fatality rates. At those meetings, the City’s program manager has explained that “Vision Zero” is a data driven framework relying on the three E’s of “Engineering, Education, and Enforcement” and then noted that because this vision can “only be done with the commitment of everyone,”then “Everyone provides a fourth “E”.

If we were to adapt this “data driven” framework to “Vision Lights On!” we might be able to find a workable solution to our electric infrastructure needs: “Engineering, Education, Electrons smoothly flowing, Everyone committed to informed dialogue making this happen!

More on Transmission

We have written before about the City Council’s January 2016 decision to pause construction on a much needed substation and transmission line with no alternative plan in place. Two years have passed and we still do not have a plan, nor have we received the benefit of paying the higher rates that were put in place to fund the construction.

In recent months, some council members have suggested this substation and line project was never really needed.  That is incorrect as is explained in this op-ed which was recently published in the Columbia Tribune.  We are running out of the capacity to reliably deliver electricity downtown, and straining the grid throughout the South and Southwest.

And we still do not have a plan.  We do have a new planning process (still to be defined) and we continue to spend on researching alternatives.  We paid $10,000 to Ameren for an additional study of the proposed “Option E” concept and in September of 2017 the council approved an additional $95,515 to further study that Option, which Ameren has estimated would cost $25 million for 10 miles of line (an estimate that does not appear to include the city’s costs of acquiring easements).  That Option also would not solve the substation overloading issue.  The City and Ameren are also exploring building a new switchyard and substation in west Columbia and then running a new 161 kV line into the Perche Creek substation.

The proposed “purpose and scope” describing the new planning process that was attached to the January 2, 2018 memo to the city council noted that the studies for Option E would be incorporated into the new planning process but did not mention also incorporating the engineering and surveying for the original project which cost more than $2 million.  Why?  A January 2018 5th Ward newsletter suggested that the original plan had been abandoned, and a 12/22/17 staff memo suggested it had been “canceled”. When?  By whom?  (There have not been subsequent council hearings or votes). Why wouldn’t all options remain on the table as we consider what would best meet our needs?

What is occurring on this issue falls short of the straightforward, open dialogue that citizens want and need on our infrastructure issues. As was recommended in past forums, we would benefit from a more citizen-centered planning process that is proactive, transparent, and focused on ensuring the key needs are timely met in a cost-effective way