Yes, New Transmission Infrastructure IS Needed


The most recent consultant hired by the City, Siemens, has once again affirmed what has been reported on this blog over the last few years – new investment in our transmission and distribution infrastructure is overdue. Substations are overloaded, there are feeder lines that have no adequate back-up at times of system peak, and certain neighborhoods, as well as our wastewater processing facilities, lack back-up in the event of an outage (See e.g., pp. 17-20, 53-54, 56, 60, 77, 130, 107, 114-120, 130, 154, 175-176, 183, 186, 190).

Water & Light told us that new investment was needed back in 2013 when it first proposed the new transmission line known as Option A and the Mill Creek substation. But after that line was approved by voters, bonds issued and work begun, the City Council “paused” that work, without an alternate plan in place. In the almost five years since that pause was put in place, the risks of service interruptions and outages has steadily increased. During that same period, we have spent over $500,000 in consulting fees* to confirm what Water &  Light told us, and what politicians denied. New investment is now urgently needed.

The Siemens plan, which was prepared for the council-appointed Integrated Electric Resource Master Plan Task Force, confirms the urgent need for new investment. And it reviews numerous options for that investment — new lines, new transformers, battery storage, etc. However, it avoids any straightforward comparison with the paused option. Despite the lack of that comparison, it does appear that we will pay more for these options than we would have paid had we completed the paused line.

How much more will we pay? We may never know. That question simply wasn’t asked by the Integrated Electric Resource Master Plan Task Force that commissioned the report. And what might be the best way to engineer our system for safety and reliability, and provide the highest value to those of us who pay for service? The Task Force didn’t ask that either.

If you agree that politicians should be accountable, and that the costs of their decisions should be clearly documented for the public, you can provide feedback to the Task Force at: online comment form.

*(Quanta – $97,500, Burns & McDonnell – $95,000, and Siemens $358,000).

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).