Poor planning and failure to invest in needed infrastructure, combined with severe weather, resulted in the rolling blackouts throughout Texas this winter. Poor planning, failure to make needed investments, and severe weather led to the California blackouts in the summer of 2020. In each case lives were lost and disrupted, and the costs of addressing the catastrophe were enormous.
The same combination of factors is putting our electric service here in Columbia at risk. First, poor planning: in 2016 our City Council “paused” a needed transmission project that was on time, on budget and approved by voters, refused to revisit the decision, and for the last two years has been deflecting questions to various consultants, boards and commissions, even as it approves additional loads. Second, failure to make needed investments: Our system continues to deteriorate as we hold off on needed investments. Perche Creek substation has been overloaded in hot weather for several years. Other substations are now overloaded in hot weather as well. Several feeder lines are not inadequately backed-up for extreme heat. Third severe weather: because we failed to make the needed investment, we lack the necessary redundancy to ensure the resilience of our systems should we have a very hot summer.
Simply put, we are vulnerable to extreme heat. We have been blessed in recent years with cooler summers. The high last year was 92 degrees and occurred on August 25. Yet the risk of a major failure and related outages goes up as the temperature rises. What will happen when the temperature reaches 105 degrees, as it did in 2011? Or 113 degrees, the previous record temperature for Columbia? Are we confident we won’t experience these temperatures in the future here in mid-Missouri? Just because weather extremes may be “rare” doesn’t mean we should ignore the risks they present.
Because the transmission line wasn’t built, our current contingency plan for dealing with a significant transmission failure is rolling blackouts. This is documented in the Annual Transmission Planning Assessment that is required by federal law. This annual report was once available in full for public review, but is no longer. As rolling blackouts replaced transmission investment as our contingency plan, the annual assessments are available only in a heavily redacted form, and discussed only in closed session. The stated reason for this is that “disclosure of this information would impair the City of Columbia’s ability to protect the security or safety or persons or real property.” (See for example minutes of the Integrated Electric Resource and Master Plan Task Force, 2/16/21 p. 2). Secret discussions weren’t necessary back when building the transmission line addressed the contingencies. That they are required now should tell us something: What we don’t know can hurt us.
Adequate, safe and reliable electric service should be a priority for all citizens. Our leaders are being neither straightforward nor transparent on the risks and costs associated with a system failure. We deserve better.