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?

 

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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.