Transmission 2021: Still At Risk

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.

Vision Lights On! New Report Confirms Perche Creek Risk

Again we have been lucky to have a cool Spring. As hot weather arrives, though, it’s time for another reminder that our Council unnecessarily placed our electric service at risk when it voted to “pause” the transmission line planned for the Southwest, with no alternate plan in place.

Now yet another consultant has confirmed that yes, the Perche Creek substation is overloaded. In a presentation sent to the Integrated Electric Resource and Management Plan Task Force, the engineering firm assisting the task force (Siemens) confirms that the substation has exceeded its firm capacity (in fact is currently operating at 150% of firm capacity at peak temperatures) and that its associated feeders are overextended.

As we have pointed out before, this puts us at risk for serious outages. A failure at Perche Creek would affect everyone in Columbia. Note that both the McBaine Water Treatment Plant and the Gillespie Bridge Sewer Treatment Plant are served by the Perche Creek substation. Due to the failure to build the transmission line, these facilities are not backed up the way Water & Light had planned or would like to them to be.

The pandemic has given us ample illustration of the fact that when those in leadership positions ignore or deny latent but serious risks, the potential harm to citizens increases. When the line was paused it was on-time, on-budget, and fully funded. During the last five years, we have paid millions in increased rates (which were approved but not “paused” by the Council) without getting the promised return.

It is unlikely that at this point we will be able to fix our electric infrastructure without paying out millions more. We should, however, be able to get a full accounting of what the Council’s “pause” has cost us, put in the infrastructure needed to ensure the reliability of key services, and adopt procedures to ensure that the Council cannot in the future so easily and heedlessly derail key projects that the public has already approved and paid for.

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.”