Our Infrastructure: Why So Little Energy For Moving Forward?

Despite the release last month of the Ameren report on the proposed alternate transmission line route known as Option E, we are far from resolving the problems with our electric infrastructure.  Despite some public comments to the contrary, the Ameren report does not suggest that “Option E” is a viable alternative to the transmission line route which was previously approved by both the Council and voters, and then “paused” late in 2015.   The Ameren report did not analyze Columbia’s electric service needs, nor the cost of the alternatives. It simply reviewed whether Columbia could build a line adjacent to one owned by Ameren on the north side of town rather than on the south where load growth is occurring.  That growth has led to overloading of the the existing substations.  This overloading affects service in the south and also in the central city. As representatives of the citizen led Water & Light Advisory Board recently noted, the alternate option does not address that overloading, although the original, now paused route, did.

As city leaders struggle to find the political will to move forward,  we received an email, quoted below, from a resident of Columbia who has lived here for several years and has now decided to leave.  Why?  Frustration with inadequate electric service:

I have lived in Columbia for a number of years and I live in the first ward. I have lived within a few miles of downtown most of my life. I have owned by home for about ten years and, until recently, I was strongly dedicated to this city.

I was excited to see downtown growing, with more options and more people starting to make it really vibrant. I was excited to see housing growth because vacancy rates in the area are so low that renters pay more than they should. 2,000 people a year have been moving into Columbia for several years now. We knew this was coming! Meeting after meeting touched on concerns about impending growth. We knew our infrastructure wasn’t ready and it still isn’t.

I have never had sewer problems as I am far enough uphill from the creek, my problems are electrical. I now experience full power outages once or twice a month and experience brownouts on really hot days. The City of Columbia is incapable of delivering me electricity, so I am leaving the city behind and I may very well never return.

I thought our power problem was going to get fixed when I voted on a bond issue years ago. I thought it was going to get fixed when they started building the lines that I voted for them to build. Instead, this project was scuttled by the complaints of a small group of wealthy people. City Council is more concerned about the complaints of a few rich people than they are with delivering power to my entire neighborhood.

Does the city even plan to fix the problem? I don’t think they do.

Our city leaders have not provided much information since pausing the planned line on the costs and consequences of delay.  We need to have an open and honest discussion, informed by all of the facts on the options before us. We also need to talk about the equities. More than one member of the public has asked why the council would cite health concerns when looking at putting a 161 kv transmission line in a wealthy area that is driving electric demand, but not express much concern about placing an additional 161 kv line next to an existing 345 kv line through residential areas in a less affluent part of town.

We can do better than we have to date on this issue in furthering the city’s stated mission:  “To serve the public through democratic, transparent, and efficient government.”

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What Could Help Us Move Forward?

I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts. – Abraham Lincoln

The City of Columbia has the following mission: “To serve the public through democratic, transparent, and efficient government.” To judge by comments made during our forums, the City is falling short of this mission, in part by not bringing citizens “the real facts” on difficult issues.

Participants raised a number of ways in which the current decision-making process is undermining trust, discouraging public engagement, and failing to move us forward. Consider the following comments at the November 15 Community Commons.

“Facts seem to be more and more elusive in the political arena.”

“Local control seems to be less and less. We need to engage more to ensure the people are aware and involved.”

“Feels like the car is being driven by someone other than us.”

“‘Bias’ in system is to keep people in their slumber.”

These can be added to comments from past forums :

“City asks citizens for input and then doesn’t do anything with it.”

“People want to be informed.”

Convey to the public the goals, the process, the outcomes.”

“Even when there is good information that contradicts the angry public conceptions on a topic, our council repeatedly fails to point out that information and argue against incorrect viewpoints.”

The list of 7 priorities for 2017, recently released by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, also raised concerns with our current system. The final priority listed was “Encourage the city council to abide by the voters’ will on ballot measures and vote to respect those outcomes.” One of the projects referenced was the stalled transmission line.

Participants also identified a number of ways that current processes could be improved. This included new approaches to how issues are discussed, better education on decision-making systems, and improved follow-through on decisions made. Each of these is discussed further below.

  • Adopt new approaches to how issues are discussed: 

Ideas generated under this category included the following:

+Promote better understanding by better separation of the facts, the interests involved, and the trade-offs among options.

Participants during the November 15 Community Commons discussed past posts on the transmission line  that were titled “Information and Misinformation.” Some stated that “everyone is selective about what facts they choose.” Others stated that engineering and certain other types of information  reflected realities that cannot safely be minimized or ignored. As the group observed, part of what drives the selective use of certain data is different interests -particularly conflicts between the interests of those who might be directly affected by the installation of new infrastructure, and longer term community interests in “the common good” associated with things like adequate electricity, sewer capacity, and roads.

When arguing over ” the facts”, we can lose sight of the real issues like: Do we want the lights to go out? Who will be accountable if they do? What are the risks (unintended potential consequences) of acting or not acting and are we willing to live with them? How, if at all, might we compensate those who take losses because of a broader public good?

Under this option, when discussing or making decisions, council members would be encouraged to unpack and separately address the information they are relying on and why (or additional information being sought and why); the long-term and short-term interests involved and how they are being weighted, the interactions and intersections between issues (e.g., economic development or housing values and new infrastructure), and the values or principles being used to guide decisions. This approach could help citizens better evaluate the available information, and the consistency of decisions being made.

+ Provide “deeper dives” on key issues and information, and earlier outreach to those who would be directly affected by new infrastructure.

Here again, referencing the transmission line, participants pointed out that no-one likes surprises and surprise was one element in the opposition that developed during the public hearings on pole placement.  One participant provided a resource on “geographic democracy” as evidence that new approaches are needed as the population changes.

+ City Council statements to be made on issues before public comment. Citizens would be better able to make good use of their limited time for public comment at council meetings if City Council members would first discuss their current thinking on an issue.

+ Use more citizen friendly scheduling: A consistent suggestion has been to hold more meetings for public comment, to hold them during days and early evening to accommodate different schedules, to align those with when public transit is running, and to publicize meetings and other opportunities for public comment in multiple ways that are likely to engage the public.

  • Provide better education on systems

The process for making decisions is frequently unclear to citizens, and information is difficult to access. Suggestions here included:

+ Use info-graphics: Developing clear, accessible, and easy to read “info-graphics” explaining key systems.

+Use technology to summarize and inform: Make better use of technology, including providing short video summaries and updates on key issues or a weekly 20 minute television program with updates on key issues.

+ Teach while entertaining: Create a humorous show like “The Office” that helps highlight how city government systems work.

  • Implement new processes to improve follow-up and follow-through

A number of suggestions were made to improve the way we make long term decisions. These included:

+ Create, disseminate, and archive summary reports on key decisions. Create an “executive summary” type decision report form.  Information to be provided might include purpose, information sources, interests and trade-offs, key assumptions, and the decision made. This document would then be available for review throughout the life of a project and contain links to key documents like Council minutes or staff reports. Updates could be created as information is updated or circumstances change, and kept along with the original report.

+Raise the threshold for re-opening key decisions previously made. Establish a set of findings the Council needs to make before pausing/ending a project that has been funded and voted on by the public. Also the Council might be required to  establish a clear date for when the issue would next be considered or provide a viable alternative to meet an existing need before it votes to “pause” or cancel such a project.

+Use Dashboards . For key projects and goals, regular, easy to understand progress reports, such as visual public dashboard, could be used so that citizens can easily track progress and cost.

+Use iterative planning on key issues. This could work in tandem with the report on decisions made and dashboards. It would require that goals for projects be defined in advance and evaluated at defined stages. Data, including public comment, would be gathered in each of the fields as the process of implementation unfolds. At defined points, and particularly at project end, the Council would invite review and capture lessons learned for improving and refining its processes.

.      .       .

 One participant at the November 15 Community Commons observed,

“Changing from feeling like a small town to a large city is a rough transition for anywhere.”

and

“Something about a small community model that is very attractive, authentic. Everybody plugged into everything all the time.”

Greater transparency, improving the ways we communicate, and greater accountability and follow-through can help plug more people in, and create a more authentic sense that we are connected together as one community.

Come share your ideas and insights on  December 20.

Community Commons
Tuesday, December 20, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.

Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.

Continue The Conversation – December 20!

We had energized conversations at our November 15 Community Commons.   You can read the notes taken during those conversations here.  These conversations will continue as we focus on how to move forward with specific actions during our 4th Community Commons,  December 20, 2016 from 7 to 9 pm at the offices of the Tribune.

The conversations on November 15 centered around two themes, Building Bridges and Citizen Centered Planning.  The group discussing how to build bridges among Columbia’s diverse groups reviewed progress made on ideas shared in prior conversations that related to how media coverage of minority communities might be improved. Student reporters, assisted by community mentors will soon be contributing stories to the Tribune. Other comments emphasized that although there is an interest in building bridges, there has to be a plan for doing so.  In December we will focus on how to follow-through with several ideas that have come up relating to fostering intentional gatherings of diverse people.  Those ideas will be listed for ease of review in the next post.

The group focusing on Citizen Centered Planning continued to address the themes of accountability and communication.  Several additional ideas for improving our processes for planning, maintaining, and building needed infrastructure were raised and will also be summarized in a future post. A group member who was new to the Community Commons commented that he was fascinated by the idea that we could have “a civil conversation on a difficult topic.”  It is those civil conversations between citizens that will help us move forward!

What were some take-aways from both conversations as expressed by the group?  These might be summarized as follows:  Listening is key, talk leads to action, and we will need ongoing engagement, creativity and follow-through to make change.

Working together, we can make a difference.

Join us!

Community Commons
Tuesday, December 20, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.

Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.

Join Us November 15!

Our next Community Commons is next Tuesday, November 15 from 7 to 9 pm. We hope you can join us.

Post-election many citizens are asking, how can we find common ground and work together?  The Columbia Tribune’s “Community Commons” aims to help you do just that.

Discussion in September  highlighted several issues related to the themes in our community dialogue guide “Are We An Us?”  Looking at the themes of Inequity and Building Bridges, the October session  explored a wide range of topics, including  the need for more affordable housing, housing for the homeless, creating more economically diverse neighborhoods, bringing neighborhoods together through smaller celebrations and events, and providing more places where people can come together for dialogue.

Those interested in Citizen Centered Planning further explored the difference between “politicians and statesman”, and discussed the possibility of creating an easily accessible public dashboard that shows progress toward public infrastructure projects approved by voters.

Interested in exploring how we can bridge divides, address inequities, and put citizens at the center?  Join us on November 15!

During this session we will also be introducing a new dialogue format called the “Conversation Cafe” that you can easily transfer to your conversations with family, friends, and neighbors.  By talking and working together, we can make a difference

Join us!

Community Commons
Tuesday, Nov. 15, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.

Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.

Information and Misinformation – 2

Many comments made by those opposed to the transmission line route known as Option A centered on the appearance of poles – height, type of materials, diameter of base etc.

Talking with Connie Kaprowicz from Water & Light, we learned that these questions hadn’t been fully settled when progress on Option A was stopped by the City Council. To the contrary, questions of location and appearance were what public comment was being sought on.

We asked Connie the following questions:

1C1C: What decisions had been made about poles and pole placement when the Council put Option A on hold?

W & L: When the project was stopped by the City Council, we were at the 30% design phase of implementing Option A. This is the stage where we decide where the poles could be located and what type of poles should be used. We held an open house for the purpose of getting public input on proposed locations and pole types. We never got to the point that these details could be finalized.This quickly turned into an issue of whether we should build lines along Option A at all rather than the evaluation of proposed locations and pole types.

1C1C:  What are the different options for pole types?

W & L: There are a lot of different pole options as shown in these slides which were shown to the City Council on January 19, 2016 (slides 51-66 from Council presentation). Note that with the steel structures, the wires are higher above ground, guy wires are not required, and fewer poles are required along a route. If wood poles were used instead of steel poles, it would result in an increase of 55.9% in the number of poles compared to steel poles).

Here is a summary of key differences between construction with steel and wood poles:

Steel vs. Wood Overview

Steel Pole Construction

  • Engineered material; consistent, controlled properties
  • Reduced safety factors required
  • No height or span limitations
  • Self supporting angles and dead-ends
  • More flexibility during design
  • More flexibility during construction
Wood Pole Construction

  • Natural material; varying properties
  • Height & span limitations – more poles required
  • Angles & dead ends are not self-supporting; require down guys – more intrusion on properties/easements
  • Limited design adjustments during construction

 

Information and Misinformation – 1

As a community we want to make wise decisions about our infrastructure and our future.  Wise decisions require consideration of facts, needs, and consequences. On January 19 of this year, the City Council voted to  “pause”  the building of an electric transmission line and substation that had been approved by voters in 2015 and for which bonds had been issued. The Council has not announced when it will again review this “pause” nor has it talked much about how the pause is affecting economic development or our electric service.  City staff, however, recently announced that it is preparing a request to extend the moratorium on building downtown due to concerns with electric infrastructure.

We asked Connie Kaprowicz of Columbia Water & Light, who joined us in the August on-line Trib Talks forum, to help us understand some of the issues involved.

1C1C: When we look at past forums, new articles, and on-line comments, we seem to be talking about two things, the Mill Creek substation and the overall  transmission line. Can you explain why each is needed and how these inter-relate?

W& L: Electricity is generated at a power station or power plant from fossil fuels or renewable resources. Approximately 90% of Columbia’s energy comes from sources outside the city. Once the power is generated, it has to be moved to where it is going to be used. Large amounts of power are transferred with electric transmission lines. An interconnected network of transmission lines is commonly referred to as the power grid.

Transmission lines feed into substations. At substations, transformers step down the power to lower voltages. From there, power is delivered to individual electric customers by distribution lines.In the older sections of town, distribution lines are mounted on wooden poles. New distribution lines in Columbia must be placed underground according to city ordinances.

electric system diagram

1C1C: Does the Mill Creek Substation still need to be built even if the transmission line is built on a route other than Option A?

W & L: Yes, As noted above, the Mill Creek substation is needed due to the electric load growth in the southern area of town. Our other substations serving the area are loaded over the suggested amount. As we explained at our May work session presentation, electric systems must have reserved capacity for times of high loads and/or problems with the system such as those caused by storms. Both the Hinkson and Perche substations are overcapacity as shown in the chart below.

  • Substation loading goal: two transformers at 50%, three transformers at 66.6%
Year Grindstone (3*) Hinkson (3*) Perche (2*)
2007 41.5% 67.6% 61.8%
2010 44.7% 68.6% 64.4%
2015 48.6% 64.2% 72.0%

*number of transformers

1C1C: Suggestions were made in past forums and in Trib Talk that rather than building the Mill Creek substation, additions could just be made at another substation like Hinkson. You indicated in our August on-line forum that that was not a good option. Could you explain in layman terms why?

W & L: There is not room to expand the Hinkson Creek substation. Even if the University would sell us additional land, it is not the best site since it is prone to flooding. Even then we would still need to build transmission lines to get the power to where it is being used. That would involve running lines through the south side of town.

We have also already purchased the land for the Mill Creek substation which is in a better spot geographically to serve the southern side of town.

1C1C: You indicated in the August on-line forum that even if we went with the suggested alternate route for the transmission line, which has been dubbed “Option E”, additional transmission lines would still be needed on the south side of town. Can you say more about that?

W & L: Option A resolved two technical issues: One is providing a second feed into the Perche Creek substation and the other is to reduce substation loading (see info above). Option E, which was proposed by the Mayor at a council work session in May, 2016, addresses the issue of getting a second 161 kV feed to Perche substation. It does not address the need to reduce substation loading. There was no direction from the City Council on how they would like to tie the Mill Creek substation into the transmission and distribution system in the event that the transmission line route changed. So that issue would still need to be resolved.

1C1C: One of the ideas about Option E was that we might be able to place our lines on poles owned by Ameren UE and Associated Electric. What is the status there?

W & L: After the Mayor proposed Option E we first needed to do some modeling work. Modeling work evaluates any possible engineering problems that could impact the entire system so it is very time consuming. Think of it as looking at all the things that can happen during one minute of play during a team sport. There are many different possibilities and combinations of things that could present risk. After our modeling did not find any red flags, we sent our modeling work to our neighboring utilities to analyze and get back to us. We do not have a response yet from any of them. Once we do hear back from them, we could possibly do another work session with council to see if they want us to pursue Option E. We still need feedback on what to do about the Mill Creek substation.

1C1C: During our August forum at least one citizen suggested that we need not be concerned about delay in moving forward with these projects because the electric system didn’t shut down over the summer. Can you comment on that?

W & L: In our personal lives, living without electricity is hard. For businesses, it can impact their income and level of service to their customers. During the storm in 2014, the wooden 80’ tall transmission poles on Fairview snapped and it took some of the largest line trucks in the Midwest to repair them. The outage from this storm lasted for five days for some of the customers. Every situation is different when it comes to problems. Small transformers on distribution lines can be easily replaced. Damage or equipment failure at the substations could take weeks/months. That is why we plan for redundancy and reserves.

Think of a road system. When there is construction or an accident you have to detour. The electric transmission and distribution system should never be run at 100% because space is needed if we need to isolate a problem and serve customers from another line. Unlike traffic, electricity can’t get stuck in a traffic jam because overloading (heavy traffic) could cause cascading problems. This would be like what happened on the east coast in the early 2000s.

Reserves refers to having extra energy available to serve an unexpected peak. This is federally regulated as well. We have to show what our peak usage is and then secure extra energy resources beyond that. All of this a part of keeping the electric grid reliable.This summer we were close to a new electric peak but luckily it rained and a cold front moved in.

Transmission planning is complex and takes time. We first identified the need for this project in 2004 when our models indicated we would have issues with the system even under normal conditions by 2020, taking into account growth. At present, we could experience problems even before 2020, particularly if any element of the system is out of service (weather, malfunctioning equipment, etc). I personally do a lot of worrying during every storm and during periods of hot, humid weather when it doesn’t cool down much at night.

1C1C: In an earlier chat you mentioned that the  Average Electric Service Availability Index is 99.9876 for Columbia out of a hundred and that a drop in this could hurt our economic development efforts. Please expand on this. 

W & L: Our community has invested in our electric system since 1904 so it is reliable. Having a reputation of unreliable electric service is not a good thing when we seek new businesses in our community. Reliability is affected by a number of factors related production, demand from customers, and delivery. Many people don’t realize that unlike water or natural gas, electricity can’t be stored by utilities in large amounts (existing batteries for use with solar energy production are very expensive and can only store a small amount) . Electricity also does not run in one direction through a “pipe” like water or natural gas. Electrons move in different ways which is one of the things that makes electrical engineering a specialized and complex field. Businesses – particularly those that are energy intensive or, like medical facilities, that rely on equipment that is sensitive to fluctuations in power, – are concerned about both power quality (avoiding fluctuations in voltage) and availability on demand.

1C1C: Can you say more about “availability on demand”?

W & L: Because electricity can’t be stored, an electric utility has to provide the power needed at every minute of the day, even as the level of demand varies. Although the amount of electricity that the city needs over time is measured in kilowatt hours the level needed at any given time is referred to as “demand”. If everyone in Columbia, especially commercial customers with large equipment, turned on everything all at once for 2 minutes, we would have to meet that huge demand for those 2 minutes. Meeting that demand is not just a matter of producing the electricity – we have to deliver it as well. This means that our transmission and distribution systems must be robust enough to meet any spikes in demand at any given moment in time. Our ability to deliver is affected by both transmission and distribution constraints. In an ideal world, demand would be constant throughout every minute of the day. We don’t live in an ideal world, and that is why we have to build a system that can handle spikes in demand. Since large commercial customers and industrial customers demand can have a big impact on our system, they are charged a kilowatt hour charge (like residential) but they also have a separate demand charge. The following graphic will help you understand energy v.demand for our system.

1C1C:  Thank you Connie.  To our readers, continue to check this blog for more posts in this series! 

Improving Our Infrastructure – You Can Help!

We know there is a lot of interest in improving our infrastructure and how we as a community plan for the future.  Readers and dialogue participants alike have shared thoughts for how we might improve.  Consider the following comments posted by a reader to articles on the current transmission line controversy.

Something that might have helped prevented the emergence (or resurgence) or organized opposition to Option A was for the city to continue to have ongoing public forums and meetings that would have provided citizens opportunities to hear updates or to voice concerns. Too often what happens is the city is all about having public meetings and getting citizen input when projects are proposed (as they are legally required to do) but then once that process is overwith and projects are approved, all communication ceases. And then one morning, a resident wakes up to find that the city is about to plant a giant electric pole in his yard or clearcut all his trees. Nobody, but nobody likes these kinds of surprises. (Posted by “Ruckus” Jan. 31, 2016)

A different approach is needed then just holding interested party meetings or Ward Checkins. Perhaps take a cue from the Sewer Dept in which affected individuals along the routes are kept updated by periodic mailings with detailed information of project plans and progress, and provide the name of an actual contact person within W and L who is actually involved in the project who is a contact point for residents who have concerns or questions. This approach has seemed to work well for the Sewer Utility on the Private Common Collector Elimination projects. The engineer responsible for any given project is the contact point for residents/neighborhood associations. (Posted by “Ruckus” Feb. 1, 2016)

Do you have ideas of your own to share about how we might improve the way our community approaches its infrastructure issues? Join us September 20 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the offices of the Tribune (101 N. 4th St., enter on Walnut Street) for another citizen-led dialogue.

Share what’s on your mind and listen to others.

Real people, real dialogue.  Join in a conversation that matters.

We hope to see you tomorrow, September 20 at 7 pm.