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.

 

Vision Lights On! Transparency, Transmission, and Summer Heat

Although the words “transparency” and “infrastructure” were used a lot in the recent mayoral election, there was little discussion of the inadequate electric infrastructure on the southwest side of Columbia. June was thankfully cool.  But as the summer heats up, the risk of outages returns.  As we have noted before, we have an aging substation serving much of the southwest side and more than one transmission line at risk (lacking needed redundancy) in the summer heat.

Most of us are used to purchasing insurance or taking proactive, protective steps when faced with a significant risk of loss.  That is essentially what voters approved in 2015 when voting for bond funds that were to be used to fix our inadequate electric infrastructure in south Columbia.  That is what the City Council was doing when it first approved the construction of a new, strategically located, substation and transmission line, and then issued bonds, and approved a related increase in rates. The new substation and connected lines were to have been finished by now.

Unfortunately, in January 2016 the Council chose to “pause” construction with no alternative plan in place.  In effect, the City Council canceled our insurance even though we have continued to pay the bills through the increased rates.  We also paid approximately $200,000 for studies which confirmed both the substation overloading and the fact that delays are costing us significantly.  Yet these studies and their implications were never publicly addressed.

Instead, the Council has added additional load by approving construction of the Westbury subdivision, sidelined our experienced staff on planning issues by referring these to a citizen commission whose members are appointed by the Council, and allowed an exodus of experienced line workers (who work to restore service when outages occur) by not paying competitive salaries. These actions only increase the risk and the need to find solutions.

What the Council does like to talk about is renewable energy.  Although renewable energy resources serve an important role in our electric system, they do not eliminate the need for investment in our transmission facilities. Ensuring adequate and reliable electric service presents many complex issues and easy answers are usually wrong. Accurate information and attention to engineering realities are needed if we are to find a way forward.

As we meet the candidates for City Manager, consider the following:  Is there a candidate who is willing to challenge the Council when it fails to consider issues that affect our health and welfare?  Or when it oversteps the bounds of our Council – Manager form of government? Or when it works to undermine our professional staff? Who is willing to talk openly and honestly to the public about both costs and risks associated with infrastructure needs and failures?  Who might move us forward?

 

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

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.