Community Is An Idea We Haven’t Figured Out Yet

This post was written by a senior at Battle High School, William Henderson, who has been interning over this last year at The Communications, Center, Inc.  It was shared before the schools closed due to Coronavirus.  Please read through and consider contributing to those in your community who have been hit hard by this pandemic through the links posted at the end.

Columbia is still struggling to become one community and I think the catalyst of this problem is division among the city. There is a clear division between the  Southwest and Northeast sides of town. The Southwest side of Columbia is viewed as the “good” part of Columbia while the Northeast is viewed as the “bad” or “ghetto” side of town. The 2017 redrawing of the district lines only enhanced this narrative by increasing the number of free and reduced lunch students in schools on the Northeast and decreasing the number of these students on the Southwest side of town. This lessened the overall wealth of families of schools on the northeast side of town and in turn decreased the schools’ access to social and economic capital

Coming from the northside things are fundamentally different. We grow up with this chip on your shoulder because everyone makes us out to be somebody that we aren’t at all. Every single person you meet from the Southside or the Westside of the city has these predisposed negative ideas about us, that make us feel as if we are less-than. We have to work extra hard for people to acknowledge us as good hearted people who can contribute to the community because we are seen as troublemakers or hoodlums by everyone that doesn’t live where we live.

Constantly surrounding young boys and girls with the idea that they are lesser versions of a human just because they don’t live on the same side of town as you results in a negative self-image, that in turn causes self-destructive behavior among adolescents growing up in these places that are looked down upon. Surrounding young children who are like sponges; with these hurtful ideas will cause them to believe them to be true. When this happens the kids give into the narrative that is already placed upon them and they become everything that people who know nothing about them, deem them to be.  They live into the expectations pushed on them instead of growing into their potential.

This is where the separation of Columbia happens. When people that live on the North and East sides of town resent the ones living on the South and West sides because they push the narrative that those people on the East and North are the only reason the city has any crime at all. Everyone in Columbia  chooses to isolate themselves because we are afraid. Our fear stems from the lack of accountability that we have as a community, we’re always looking to be able to point a finger, instead of realizing that we have a problem internally and working to fix it. It seems to me that nobody actually wants improvement, they just want their way of thinking to be proven right. We focus too much on what we think everybody else is doing wrong, instead of appreciating them for what they’re doing right. Everybody wants to feel secure and comfortable and stay divided in their own collective groups, but improvement stems from being uncomfortable. We have to stop being scared of each other and find the courage to change if we want to improve on the issues we have as a city.

Community isn’t about what you’re used to, it’s about embracing change in order to improve the lives of those living within it. We will never be able to obtain the goal of a community if we continue to separate ourselves from one another. True cooperation from everyone from every side of town is the only way we will be able to change what is the “norm” for us. Believing in each other is a necessity because trust is the backbone of what we all want to achieve. This idea of coexisting may not be something we’ve quite grasped just yet but we are so close to beginning the creation of a new Columbia, a Columbia where everyone loves one another and isn’t separated by things like location of residency.

One Community, One Columbia.

The Coronavirus has highlighted the deep inequities in our system.  Throughout the country Afican Americans are dying at faster ratesthan others, reflecting the effects of both racial injustice, poverty, and inequalities of access to healthcare. Columbia has set up funds to help your neighbors. Please give as generously as you can.  If you need help try the resources listed here.

Will You Be Able To Keep Your Electric Service?

Tad Johnsen, our Water and Light Director, is retiring after many years of working to ensure the reliability of our electric system.  His final report  to the Water and Light Advisory Board contained some concerning statements.

Referencing the Council’s recent focus on renewable energy, he stated:

In the future, electric utilities will need to make the transition from the provider of electric service to providing the different electric services consumers want.

This raises several questions, including the following: Who will bear the cost of these different “options”? How will this affect our service reliability? Who makes a decision to move from a full service menu that provides broad benefits throughout the community to an a la carte set of options desired by some but may be costly to all?  Who is deciding what “consumers” want? Will the community be allowed to vote before there is a change?

Unfortunately, we can’t count on the Council to decide what will best ensure safe and reliable electric service at reasonable rates.  Ever since the Council “paused” a proposed transmission line with no alternative plan in place,  it has avoided talking about that issue.  Over 60% of voters approved the proposed transmission line.  That line, had it been built, would have helped assure basic reliable electric service at a reasonable cost for many years to come. Instead, we have paid millions,  associated with the Council’s delay.  The Council does like to talk about “renewable energy”. However, as we have previously explained, “renewable energy” is not a substitute for adequate transmission despite the efforts of various Council members to suggest that it is, and it is not always cost effective. 

Mr. Johnsen also cautioned:

As we push towards increased levels of renewable energy in our resource mix, we need to understand the impacts to market risk and potential impacts to electric rates these changes may have.

We do need to understand these risks,  Unfortunately, the Council has been less than transparent about the ongoing costs of its actions.

Mr. Johnsen further stated that the current Integrated Electric Resources and Master Planning process will likely affect the structure of electric service rates.  He also pointed out that the planning for implementation of the Council’s recently adopted Climate Action and Adaptation Plan “could have an impact on how all of Columbia’s Utilities provide services in the future.”

He expressed the hope that

the impact of these changes will be evaluated from different perspectives, including short term and long term financial costs, environmental impacts, and quality of life effects.

We hope so too. Although given the Council’s past lack of transparency on this issue we can’t assume that will happen.  So if you care about safe and reliable electric service, the time to get involved is now.  One way to prepare is to take one of the classes that Osher is offering on understanding your electric service.  Taking this class can help you better understand, monitor, and weigh in on emerging issues.  You can register for one of two sections, one on Monday afternoons (March 9-April 6) and one on Tuesday evenings (April 14-May 5).

Learn About Your Electric Service!

Matt Pitzer, responding to a KOMU report regarding “forgotten funds” for water service, stated “When we ask for a bond issue that’s going to lead to a rate increase then we should do what we said we were going to do.” Mayor Treece criticized Water & Light for not “keeping promises they made.”  Yet both have stood in the way of proceeding with the needed changes in our transmission infrastructure.  This despite a public vote approving the related bond issue and a 3% rate increase that has been in place for several years now.  How might we hold Council accountable when it is responsible for the change or misdirection of funds voted by the public? A change that has cost us millions to date? How might we require an  accounting of the overall costs incurred?

Electricity is one of our most critical services.  More of us need to be informed in order to understand the decisions made and their consequences for cost and reliability of service.  Osher is offering a class that can help you understand the issues affecting your electric service so that you can better monitor and weigh in on emerging issues.  You can register for one of two sections, one on Monday afternoons (March 9-April 6) and one on Tuesday evenings (April 14-May 5).

Requesting Transparency for Transmission

Below is the text of a statement provided by Jim Windsor (retired Assistant Director of Utilities) at the City Council meeting on January 6, 2020.  If we want a more open and honest discussion of our electric service issues, we will have to continue to ask for it.

“Recently, five members of the Columbia City Council signed a letter that stated in part “we expect open, honest and transparent government.” As a citizen, I commend the concept; however, as a ratepayer of the electric utility, I question its validity.

Over 10 years ago, the first interested parties meeting regarding a new substation and the first Council work session on a proposed transmission line were held. That was followed by multiple interested parties meetings; council work sessions; reviews of multiple Option A routes; the development of Option B routes; more input from
residents; more council work sessions and discussions; a community review and
selection process; and, of course money being paid to consultants.

This lengthy process resulted in the purchase of property for the substation and the
selection of a route, called Option A, to connect the new substation with the Perche
Creek substation.

It also resulted in a bond proposal that was presented to voters in April of 2015.
Approximately half of the total bond proposal, as outlined in the information presented to voters, was related to the transmission and substation projects.The April 2015 bond proposal was approved by 68% of voters, bonds were initially sold
worth about half of the total bond authority and rate payers received a 3% rate increase to pay for the principal and interest on the bonds.

City staff moved forward with purchase of the required substation transformers and
other equipment needed to build the new substation and connect to the Grindstone and Perche Creek substations. City staff also brought forward an authorization to proceed with the transmission line.

It was at that point that a group, unhappy with the results of the lengthy public process, came to the Council in opposition to the transmission project. In January of 2016, four years ago, the Council placed the transmission line on hold. What has happened in those four years?

The mayor suggested a different route called Option E.

Burns & McDonnell was paid $100,000 for an in-depth study of Option E and that study was completed in July 2018. Public presentation to Council was part of the contract scope-of-work but never occurred. The study shows Option E would cost a minimum of $10 million more than Option A and included a list of multiple issues that could drive the cost much higher.

Quanta was hired for an electric distribution study and was also paid $100,000. That
study was completed in July 2018 and included a public presentation as part of the
contract. That presentation never occurred. The study shows that five substations
exceeded 100% of their capacity should they lose one of their transformers. Perche
Creek substation is the most in danger at 160% and that occurs at 97 degrees.

Staff sent Council a synopsis of the Quanta report after I raised the issue earlier this year. When a member of Council asked when the last time a substation transformer had failed, staff indicated it doesn’t happen often and it had been several years. That’s true, the last time it occurred was in 2012, when the summer temperature was over 100 degrees. Summers have only reached 97 since then.

The fact that the two reports were not publicly discussed can be blamed on the previous city manager. In the spirit of open, honest and transparent government, I ask the City Council and new city manager to require those consultants to complete their contracts and publicly explain their studies.

In early 2019, the Council approved the Westbury Village development which could add over 2 megawatts of load to the already overloaded Perche Creek substation. In June 2019, the Council accepted the Climate Action Plan. That plan predicts higher summer temperatures, while also encouraging switching motor vehicle fuels and natural gas equipment to electricity. It also states that more frequent extreme weather
events increase the risk of longer, sustained power outages for the City’s electric
customers.

So, after four years, where are we –

  • we have yet another citizens committee and yet another consultant with a report due in September 2020. Let’s hope this summer doesn’t exceed 97 degrees.

Reports based summer temperatures at 97 degrees, really don’t address the issue. The
real issue is “what will happen to the electric distribution system when the summer
temperature reaches 105 degrees?” That was the temperature in 2011 when the last
system peak occurred.

Since policy will be developed that is based on the climate report then perhaps the
question should be “what will happen to the electric distribution system when the
summer temperature exceeds the previous Columbia record temperature of 113
degrees?”

I look forward to open, honest, and transparent government addressing these questions.”

Transparency, Electric Service, And Focus

Municipal utilities exist to provide reliable service to city residents at affordable rates.     A Staff memo presented to the City Council on November 4, 2019 supported a 20-year contract at $4.5 million a year for a “utility scale” solar generation resource.  Part of the rationale was that this contract could help the City meet the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in the climate change plan that the City Council recently decided to adopt.  The City would plan to resell most of the energy it obtains under the contract in the wholesale market to offset its cost.  Here is the specific language in the Staff memo:

Our current renewable rate impact methodology is an incremental cost impact model which works with the assumption that renewable generation provides needed capacity, does not exceed current load and can be absorbed by the existing dispatchable resources. When the level of renewable resources has the potential to operate outside of these assumptions, additional impact assessments should be considered.  It is important to know that at some point we would be producing more energy relative to our load, depending upon the reconciliation interval considered (i.e. hourly, daily or monthly). As renewable resources are added we will reach a point where the energy produced from our resources exceeds Columbia’s load.  This excess generated energy will be settled directly in the MISO energy market.

In other words, we will be buying more power than we need for providing electric service to users in Columbia. This appears to be a shift away from a focus on what is needed to provide electric service. The Water and Light Advisory Board is also considering how to advance climate change goals in the integrated resource plan for the electric utility by procuring renewable resources, and it is not clear that they are giving equal consideration to more traditional approaches.

The purchase of renewable resources to meet goals other than the provision of service can be very costly for those who pay the rates for utility service, as this cautionary story shows. Citizens deserve clear and easily accessible information on the options being considered. Only when all appropriate options, including purchased power and other traditional resources are evaluated for cost and reliability and risk can we properly weight the trade-offs and decide what best meets the need for efficient, reliable and cost-effective electric service. We are not getting this kind of information.

Ask questions and be vigilant. It’s your utility and you pay the costs.

Vision Lights On! More on Transparency and Transmission

Following various public comment and expressions of concern, Council requested a “report on the electric capacity and load serving reliability of the Perche Creek substation” which it received at its meeting on October 7, 2019. The report does not focus on the specific loads in the area, although it notes those are being studied.  The report does note that

“There is some concern that recent load patterns may not be representative of a ‘worst-case’ for the City.  The City has not experienced extended temperatures of 105 degrees or greater since it set its all-time peak in the summer of 2011.”

Even though the report focuses on potential loss of only one transformer and does not address a complete outage at the substation, it does reference its “Load Shed Plan” for certain contingencies.  Under that plan “[r]esidential customers are targeted to be shed first while critical services such as hospitals, fire stations and the water and wastewater treatment plants are shed last.”

At least two citizens with extensive experience in the field have submitted responses to the Council pointing out issues ignored in the report. You can review those responses here (first response) and here (second response).

In other developments worth noting, the Integrated Electric Resource and Master Plan Task Force, which was appointed by the Council, issued an RFP requesting, as part of the scope of work, a review of the existing standards of reliability. This tracks the concern we noted in an earlier post that the City might look to justify the deferral of needed investment in its transmission infrastructure by simply changing the methodology traditionally used to ensure reliability.  In July of this year the Council also approved a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP) which includes the following recommendations: (i) “moving towards 100% renewable electricity generation”, (ii) elimination of the current limits on rate increases caused by the purchase of more expensive renewable sources, and (iii) using storage batteries and community microgrids to support grid resilience and promote reliability (see pp. 48-49). The plan did not include any analysis of the costs or effects of these recommendations. The first two of these recommendations were among the CAAP priorities that were also reviewed by the Council on October 7, 2019.

So where are we going with our electric service?  Will we have an true open discussion of the trade-offs between cost, reliability, and available options or will some options like the transmission line simply remain off the table?  What is our risk tolerance?  And will we have a full accounting of the costs associated with the Council’s hasty decision to “pause” the transmission line in 2016, including an accounting of costs associated with opportunities lost when a project that was approved by the voters, on-time, and on-budget, was simply set aside.

 

Inequities Harm Us All

ColumbiaMODemographics (2)

The need to recognize, and address, inequities in Columbia was one of three themes identified by citizens in the discussions that led up to the development of our community dialogue guide, “Are We An Us?” Significant inequities continue to exist, as illustrated in the infographic above. This infographic was shared with us by Tyree Byndom, a former resident of Columbia and community leader, and has recently returned.  In the time he was away from Columbia, Tyree started a coaching firm and teamed up with a client to co-found a website on black demographics.

As citizens we cannot afford to be indifferent to these inequities or simply assume they will resolve as a result of efforts by city government or various nonprofits. Indifference builds distrust within our community, and erodes community ties.

Although there are have been several projects undertaken by the city and others, particularly in the areas of affordable housing, business development, and neighborhood outreach, these fall well short of a community commitment to fully resolving the inequities that exist. As one participant observed: “There are many, very good initiatives taking place, but no-one has a holistic understanding of all of the efforts. To too many individuals it looks like nothing is happening and no-one cares.”

One thing that would help is more day to day interactions among people who live in different neighborhoods. Consider these comments from past dialogues: “We don’t know our neighbors.” “We get into niches that fit us too well.” “People want to stay in their comfort zone.” “City being divided like St.Louis with north and south.” “De facto segregation here.””People don’t trust other people.” Indifference leads to isolation, and isolation leads to fear and distrust. It also prevents the informal individual relationships that create “social capital”.

What can a concerned citizen do?

  • One you can be aware.
  • Two you can learn more about the systems and history that have led to the inequities illustrated in the infographic above.
  • Three you can take action by asking hard questions, connecting with others, and learning about the programs that are out there (and then using them or referring others).
  • Fourth you can consciously work to meet your neighbors throughout the city. How do you do that? You can plan or attend an event, you can call a contractor listed on the city’s minority business site, you can strike up a conversation when you are out and about, or reach out to a community organization you haven’t yet worked with and invite them to yours.

Keep in mind that social ties are often what drive opportunity. Creating those ties is one of our responsibilities as community members.

In subsequent posts we will interview various community members who are working in this area and present their thoughts on how we got here and how we might go forward together, both to build bridges, and to resolve the systemic inequities that exist in our community.

You are invited to share your own ideas in the comment section below.