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

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

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

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?


Transparency and Transmission: Option E Costs More

The City Council did not have an alternate plan in place to ensure electric service reliability when in January 2016 it “paused” construction of the Mill Creek substation and related transmission lines. That project, which was intended to address load growth in the South and Southwest, was known as “Option A”.  Starting in mid 2016, the Council decided to study the possibility of instead building a transmission line in north Columbia. This proposal was dubbed “Option E”. Suggestions were made that Option E was likely to be less costly than Option A.  “Option E” did not, however, address the Mill Creek substation or the substation overloading that the new substation was intended to address.

In the fall of 2017, almost a year and a half after the “pause”, the Council approved, at a combined cost of almost $200,000, two consulting contracts related to electric service. The first, a contract to look at the engineering and estimated cost of “Option E” was awarded to Burns & McDonnell.  The second, a contract to review electric service loads and electric distribution needs, was awarded to Quanta Technology. Both consultants sent their final reports to the City in July, 2018. We recently received these reports  through an open records request.

The cost estimates provided by Burns & McDonnell show Option E to be over $10,000,000 more expensive than the “paused” line, known as Option A.

The report also calls into question other arguments made by Council members who voted to pause Option A. For example, the Burns & McDonnell report confirms that the staff’s choice of metal poles for a 164 kV line was sound. (As the report states on “wood vertical monopole construction is impractical, as structure loading would exceed the capacity of an H6 wood pole” (p. 4-5); and also observes on p. 4-6: “[s]teel generally has a longer service life than wood and is not subject to rot, woodpecker damage, or other premature structure deterioration”). The report also documents the fact that Option E, like Option A, would impact residential neighborhoods (p. 7-2).  Although the report concludes that the “proposed route is feasible,” it qualified that conclusion, stating “there are a number of route obstructions which will need to be addressed and will ultimately have additional costs that would not be recognized from an unobstructed route” (p. 9-1).

Even though the Quanta report focused on overall system loads and did not look at substation level forecasts, it identifies the Perche Creek substation as needing careful monitoring during July as well as the creation of “an offloading schedule that should be triggered in case category P1 operation conditions occur (e.g. transformer failure)”. Transformers are generally manufactured for a 20 to 30 year life.  The oldest transformer at Perche Creek was manufactured in 1968, and the most recent in 1997.  The other two were manufactured in 1983 and 1986.

Another concern raised by the Quanta report is its suggestion that the City might look at changing the methodology traditionally used to ensure reliability when calculating the load serving capacity of its substations.  The purpose of  substituting a new methodology would be to “provide the opportunity to defer substation investment” (p. 29). Quanta goes on to note that selection of an alternate methodology would be dependent on “the level of risk tolerance which they [Water & Light] have regarding substation operation.”

What is our risk tolerance when it comes to electric service outages? Our homes, our businesses, and our medical facilities are entirely dependent on reliable on electricity.  The costs of an extended outage would be significant.  How close do we want to come?  The question should not be how to defer needed investments for as long as possible, but to ensure reliable service, both currently and for the long term.  As we have stated before, we need a decision-making approach that that is more proactive, transparent, and focused on ensuring our infrastructure needs are timely met in a cost-effective way.  Suggestions for how we might improve on the current process are welcome.