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.”

Information and Misinformation – 3

In this post we look at three additional claims made by members of the public who questioned the Option A transmission line route during our forums.

The first was the suggestion that W & L was investing in transmission for the benefit of Boone Electric customers. The fact is that one can’t simply eyeball the landscape and determine who is and is not a city customer. We learned that, for the last 30 years, electric service has been governed by a territory agreement between Boone Electric and the City. Although there is a section of southwest Columbia that is served by Boone Electric under that agreement, W & L is required to provide, and does provide, service to customers on either side of that section.

Representatives of W & L further explained to us that the electric distribution systems of Boone Electric and the City are not compatible. This is because they are operated at different voltages, opposite phase rotations, and different phase angles. This makes it practically impossible for the City to serve Boone Electric customers or for Boone Electric to serve City customers.

W & L representatives also noted that although growth in southern Columbia is primarily due to new residential development, there has been a lot of new commercial development as well. This includes all the businesses along Grindstone and Nifong. Some of the biggest commercial loads have been for medical centers which use use a lot of electricity for all their equipment.

The second misconception raised in the forums related to the thought that the City might be able to avoid building new transmission lines through better energy efficiency or conservation. We also asked W & L about that, and here is the response:

In the 2008/2009 time frame we greatly increased our electric efficiency programs according to the utility cost/benefit established in our Integrated Resource Plan. From 2008 through 2015, the cumulative reduction in the electric load was estimated to be 38.86 million kilowatt hours with a total peak reduction of 5,891 kilowatts.

As a result our electric load projections have been modified from a 2% annual increase to a 1.25% annual increase. Renewable resources like solar help lower the electric demand during the day but the production starts dropping off as our electric peak increases (peaks happen around 5 to 7 pm). Note that large amounts of electricity can’t be stored for an economical price.

Although energy efficiency, controlling the demand, and new solar resources are great achievements for our community, they simply won’t solve the problem of a second feed into the Perche Creek substation or the overloading we already have at our existing substations. ”

Third, we asked about the various claims, made during the forums, that “Option A” was the “most expensive” option. “Expense” is actually a complicated issue that requires consideration of different time frames, and benefits gained. W & L shared with us information (also shared with the City Council) indicating that Option A, while initially more costly in nominal dollars, also provides more capacity and resolves issues for a much longer period. That means it is lower cost, or higher value, over time.

You can review this, and other information related to the transmission line issue, on an archive webpage created by Water and Light to help keep the public informed.

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! 

You Can Make A Difference

Join us for another Community Commons on October 18 from 7-9 pm at the Tribune offices (enter on Walnut St. between 4th and Providence).

Those who attended the first Community Commons held on September 20, divided into two separate groups for two separate, wide ranging conversations.

In the first, the focus was on building bridges and addressing inequities. Recognizing that inequity/inequality is very difficult to change, the group asked “what could we offer now so our children and grandchildren especially aren’t sitting around talking about this?” Ideas included special zoning to facilitate places where people could gather and interact, more press about activities in the African- American community that is informed by leaders in that community (it was noted those leaders should be identified by the black community and not denominated by those outside), more marketing and diversification of minority owned businesses, and the need for minority communities to also create community among their own members so as to better connect and celebrate accomplishments. The need for more dialogue among all citizens was also emphasized. The group also discussed various types of events that would help break down “taboo” things and locations. Come and contribute your ideas on October 18!

Another group focused on citizen-centered planning. Much of the discussion in this group focused on the stalled transmission line, which was brought up as an example of “broken governance.” Questions asked here included, “Who does council talk to? Just the loudest self interested voices? Experts available to them? Staff?” “How can we better involve citizens at the appropriate best time, not at the last minute?”, “How can we elevate issues to a focus on the public good?” and “How could those harmed or experiencing a monetary loss as a result of a decision made for the common good be compensated?” During the discussions a  distinction was made between “politicians” who are easily swayed by public dissent and “statesmen” who work to understand, translate, and resolve complex issues and move the community forward. Characteristics of “statesmen” that were identified included respecting process, respecting staff, focusing on the common good, and being honest about the hard issues. Participants agreed that citizens needed to be more involved on an ongoing basis as these issues unfolded and that both citizens and leaders needed to be accountable for their actions. What constitutes accountability and how do we achieve it?   Join us on October 18 as we explore this issue further.

We look forward to seeing you on October 18.

The Transmission Line: Many Questions

Since the online forum on August 23rd, tax abatements have been approved for an upgrade of the Dana Light Axle Products facility, and the mayor has announced a new medical tourism initiative. Yet the issue of how we are going to meet the electric service needs of new industry or our energy intensive medical facilities remains stalled.

Our August 23 forum focused on “citizen-centered planning,” using as a case study the City Council’s decision to “pause” construction on the new transmission line while researching potential alternatives to the previously approved route (“Option A”). Citizens joining the August 23 forum raised questions about the costs of delay, the costs of potential alternatives, the costs incurred to date, the timeline for decision, and whether and how the public will be engaged in any future discussion of what is to be done.

As citizens in our past forums have observed, “People want to be informed.”  The council’s lack of discussion on a timeline, on the consequences of delay, or on the criteria for future decisions on this key issue, is not providing citizens with information they want and need.

Citizens at past forums made the following observations about how the city council approaches the issues of growth:

  • “they avoid the hard issues until those must be addressed;”
  • “They spend most of their time cleaning up messes rather than presenting clearly defined programs aimed at achieving goals;”
  • “They are always working in hindsight mode.”

We can’t meet our energy needs by talking about what “might work” or by simply hoping the whole uncomfortable issue goes away. If we are going to announce new initiatives intended to promote our economy, we should be discussing at the same time how the necessary infrastructure will be put in place to support both current and future needs. This applies not only to electric infrastructure but to sewers, water, and roads as well.

As Hank Waters said in a recent editorial:

After all these months of delay, the city council needs to get off the dime. It will never be rid of conflicting opinion on this issue. If the council has enough reason to abandon Option A, it should have the final stages of a lucid discussion and make another decision, but it will have to overcome the obvious arguments in favor of proceeding as planned.

In future posts we will further explore the issues of costs and process raised on August 23.

Join Us August 23

This Tuesday, August 23rd from 5 to 6 p.m. we will host our next on-line Trib Talks forum using the Cover It Live platform. We will focus on “citizen centered planning” using the current transmission line controversy as a case study.

You can review last Sunday’s article by Caitlin Campbell  for an up to date summary of the transmission line issue, and review past coverage or the  information page on the city website for even more information.

To participate in the forum, simply visit www.columbiatribune.com at 5 p.m. (or shortly before) Tuesday, click on the link and join in.

Can’t join us? Review the transcript on our archive page after the forum, or host your own dialogue and report back in!