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.

 

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.

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!?

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

 

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.”