Transparency and Transmission: Getting to Real Facts

Which of the following factors should weigh most heavily as we make decisions about our electric service: engineering realities, $$$, political pride, or public protest?

Our Water & Light utility knows how to ensure reliable service. This is evidenced by its earning the Diamond Level Reliable Public Power Provider designation from the American Public Power Association earlier this year. This is the highest level of this award, which recognizes operational excellence.

Yet at least three of our council members – all of whom opposed the building of the transmission line known as Option A – have expressed a lack of trust in our staff and criticized them for past planning. (See for example, Council minutes 1/16/18, pp.29-30; 3/5/18, p.18, 3/9/18, p. 14).

The Council cancelled Option A with no alternative plan in place. The monies raised for the construction of that line are being redirected elsewhere as some on the Council suggest maybe no line will be needed.  (Council Minutes, 1/2/18, pp. 12-13). Various Council members have also offered opinions on how the system might be engineered in the context of appointing a special energy planning task force, and directing it to study a range of issues. (Council Minutes, 3/5/18, pp. 17-21; 3/19/18, pp. 13-18). There is some evidence that staff may be reluctant to speak up and clearly share their concerns. (Council minutes, 7/16/18, p. 32).

When it comes to making good decisions about our infrastructure, we need to ensure that relevant information is widely shared with the public, and done so in an accurate, timely, comprehensive and easily understandable way. That is unlikely to happen if we downplay the expertise of our staff, rewrite the history of a project, or fail to discuss openly the costs and risks associated with delay.

The Chamber of Commerce in endorsing a recent proposal to issue bonds to improve our water and sewer system, pledged that going forward it would work to ensure greater transparency and accountability on infrastructure projects. Let’s hope the Chamber follows through.

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.

Keeping An Eye On Our Electric Service

We have previously discussed the Council’s ongoing failure to address the overloading of the substations that serve the South and Southwest and also affect power downtown. The overloading has only gotten worse. In 2015 the Perche Creek substation exceeded its loading goal by 22%. In 2017, that number was 29%. In July of 2018, it was 48%. Perche Creek was not the only substation to exceed its loading goals in July. Blue Ridge, Rebel Hill, and the Power Plant all exceeded 100% of their loading goals. Hinkson Creek was at 99%.

Electric systems must have reserve capacity for times of high loads and/or problems with the system such as those caused by storms, to avoid outages. This overloading is a current issue, not one for future planning. We were lucky this year. What might have happened had we had longer stretches of extreme heat as we did in 2011?

Until put on hold by the City Council, installation of the Mill Creek substation was part of Water & Light’s contingency plan to keep the system up and running under adverse conditions. (Compare these 2016 maps which show the system without Mill Creek, and with its addition.)  Load shedding” is a focus of the current plan. This was explained to the City Council in January 2018, although it did not draw much discussion. Where would outages occur? Depending on where the load needed to be dropped, outages would start with the circuits tied to that particular substation and after that, would occur on circuits identified “from a priority or community impact relationship.” (Minutes, January 2, 2018, pp. 13 and 14.)

How would your business, residence, or our community be affected by an extended outage? Is this a risk we are willing to simply live with? If not, speak up! Electric infrastructure takes time to plan and install. We have 11 months before next summer. This is an urgent issue that needs ongoing attention.  Can we develop an action plan for Vision: Lights On!?

Vision: Lights On!

In contrast to the lack of open dialogue on our electric infrastructure needs, the council has been convening public meetings around the City to talk about their new “Vision Zero” initiative to reduce traffic fatality rates. At those meetings, the City’s program manager has explained that “Vision Zero” is a data driven framework relying on the three E’s of “Engineering, Education, and Enforcement” and then noted that because this vision can “only be done with the commitment of everyone,”then “Everyone provides a fourth “E”.

If we were to adapt this “data driven” framework to “Vision Lights On!” we might be able to find a workable solution to our electric infrastructure needs: “Engineering, Education, Electrons smoothly flowing, Everyone committed to informed dialogue making this happen!

More on Transmission

We have written before about the City Council’s January 2016 decision to pause construction on a much needed substation and transmission line with no alternative plan in place. Two years have passed and we still do not have a plan, nor have we received the benefit of paying the higher rates that were put in place to fund the construction.

In recent months, some council members have suggested this substation and line project was never really needed.  That is incorrect as is explained in this op-ed which was recently published in the Columbia Tribune.  We are running out of the capacity to reliably deliver electricity downtown, and straining the grid throughout the South and Southwest.

And we still do not have a plan.  We do have a new planning process (still to be defined) and we continue to spend on researching alternatives.  We paid $10,000 to Ameren for an additional study of the proposed “Option E” concept and in September of 2017 the council approved an additional $95,515 to further study that Option, which Ameren has estimated would cost $25 million for 10 miles of line (an estimate that does not appear to include the city’s costs of acquiring easements).  That Option also would not solve the substation overloading issue.  The City and Ameren are also exploring building a new switchyard and substation in west Columbia and then running a new 161 kV line into the Perche Creek substation.

The proposed “purpose and scope” describing the new planning process that was attached to the January 2, 2018 memo to the city council noted that the studies for Option E would be incorporated into the new planning process but did not mention also incorporating the engineering and surveying for the original project which cost more than $2 million.  Why?  A January 2018 5th Ward newsletter suggested that the original plan had been abandoned, and a 12/22/17 staff memo suggested it had been “canceled”. When?  By whom?  (There have not been subsequent council hearings or votes). Why wouldn’t all options remain on the table as we consider what would best meet our needs?

What is occurring on this issue falls short of the straightforward, open dialogue that citizens want and need on our infrastructure issues. As was recommended in past forums, we would benefit from a more citizen-centered planning process that is proactive, transparent, and focused on ensuring the key needs are timely met in a cost-effective way

 

Our Infrastructure: Why So Little Energy For Moving Forward?

Despite the release last month of the Ameren report on the proposed alternate transmission line route known as Option E, we are far from resolving the problems with our electric infrastructure.  Despite some public comments to the contrary, the Ameren report does not suggest that “Option E” is a viable alternative to the transmission line route which was previously approved by both the Council and voters, and then “paused” late in 2015.   The Ameren report did not analyze Columbia’s electric service needs, nor the cost of the alternatives. It simply reviewed whether Columbia could build a line adjacent to one owned by Ameren on the north side of town rather than on the south where load growth is occurring.  That growth has led to overloading of the the existing substations.  This overloading affects service in the south and also in the central city. As representatives of the citizen led Water & Light Advisory Board recently noted, the alternate option does not address that overloading, although the original, now paused route, did.

As city leaders struggle to find the political will to move forward,  we received an email, quoted below, from a resident of Columbia who has lived here for several years and has now decided to leave.  Why?  Frustration with inadequate electric service:

I have lived in Columbia for a number of years and I live in the first ward. I have lived within a few miles of downtown most of my life. I have owned by home for about ten years and, until recently, I was strongly dedicated to this city.

I was excited to see downtown growing, with more options and more people starting to make it really vibrant. I was excited to see housing growth because vacancy rates in the area are so low that renters pay more than they should. 2,000 people a year have been moving into Columbia for several years now. We knew this was coming! Meeting after meeting touched on concerns about impending growth. We knew our infrastructure wasn’t ready and it still isn’t.

I have never had sewer problems as I am far enough uphill from the creek, my problems are electrical. I now experience full power outages once or twice a month and experience brownouts on really hot days. The City of Columbia is incapable of delivering me electricity, so I am leaving the city behind and I may very well never return.

I thought our power problem was going to get fixed when I voted on a bond issue years ago. I thought it was going to get fixed when they started building the lines that I voted for them to build. Instead, this project was scuttled by the complaints of a small group of wealthy people. City Council is more concerned about the complaints of a few rich people than they are with delivering power to my entire neighborhood.

Does the city even plan to fix the problem? I don’t think they do.

Our city leaders have not provided much information since pausing the planned line on the costs and consequences of delay.  We need to have an open and honest discussion, informed by all of the facts on the options before us. We also need to talk about the equities. More than one member of the public has asked why the council would cite health concerns when looking at putting a 161 kv transmission line in a wealthy area that is driving electric demand, but not express much concern about placing an additional 161 kv line next to an existing 345 kv line through residential areas in a less affluent part of town.

We can do better than we have to date on this issue in furthering the city’s stated mission:  “To serve the public through democratic, transparent, and efficient government.”

What Could Help Us Move Forward?

I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts. – Abraham Lincoln

The City of Columbia has the following mission: “To serve the public through democratic, transparent, and efficient government.” To judge by comments made during our forums, the City is falling short of this mission, in part by not bringing citizens “the real facts” on difficult issues.

Participants raised a number of ways in which the current decision-making process is undermining trust, discouraging public engagement, and failing to move us forward. Consider the following comments at the November 15 Community Commons.

“Facts seem to be more and more elusive in the political arena.”

“Local control seems to be less and less. We need to engage more to ensure the people are aware and involved.”

“Feels like the car is being driven by someone other than us.”

“‘Bias’ in system is to keep people in their slumber.”

These can be added to comments from past forums :

“City asks citizens for input and then doesn’t do anything with it.”

“People want to be informed.”

Convey to the public the goals, the process, the outcomes.”

“Even when there is good information that contradicts the angry public conceptions on a topic, our council repeatedly fails to point out that information and argue against incorrect viewpoints.”

The list of 7 priorities for 2017, recently released by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, also raised concerns with our current system. The final priority listed was “Encourage the city council to abide by the voters’ will on ballot measures and vote to respect those outcomes.” One of the projects referenced was the stalled transmission line.

Participants also identified a number of ways that current processes could be improved. This included new approaches to how issues are discussed, better education on decision-making systems, and improved follow-through on decisions made. Each of these is discussed further below.

  • Adopt new approaches to how issues are discussed: 

Ideas generated under this category included the following:

+Promote better understanding by better separation of the facts, the interests involved, and the trade-offs among options.

Participants during the November 15 Community Commons discussed past posts on the transmission line  that were titled “Information and Misinformation.” Some stated that “everyone is selective about what facts they choose.” Others stated that engineering and certain other types of information  reflected realities that cannot safely be minimized or ignored. As the group observed, part of what drives the selective use of certain data is different interests -particularly conflicts between the interests of those who might be directly affected by the installation of new infrastructure, and longer term community interests in “the common good” associated with things like adequate electricity, sewer capacity, and roads.

When arguing over ” the facts”, we can lose sight of the real issues like: Do we want the lights to go out? Who will be accountable if they do? What are the risks (unintended potential consequences) of acting or not acting and are we willing to live with them? How, if at all, might we compensate those who take losses because of a broader public good?

Under this option, when discussing or making decisions, council members would be encouraged to unpack and separately address the information they are relying on and why (or additional information being sought and why); the long-term and short-term interests involved and how they are being weighted, the interactions and intersections between issues (e.g., economic development or housing values and new infrastructure), and the values or principles being used to guide decisions. This approach could help citizens better evaluate the available information, and the consistency of decisions being made.

+ Provide “deeper dives” on key issues and information, and earlier outreach to those who would be directly affected by new infrastructure.

Here again, referencing the transmission line, participants pointed out that no-one likes surprises and surprise was one element in the opposition that developed during the public hearings on pole placement.  One participant provided a resource on “geographic democracy” as evidence that new approaches are needed as the population changes.

+ City Council statements to be made on issues before public comment. Citizens would be better able to make good use of their limited time for public comment at council meetings if City Council members would first discuss their current thinking on an issue.

+ Use more citizen friendly scheduling: A consistent suggestion has been to hold more meetings for public comment, to hold them during days and early evening to accommodate different schedules, to align those with when public transit is running, and to publicize meetings and other opportunities for public comment in multiple ways that are likely to engage the public.

  • Provide better education on systems

The process for making decisions is frequently unclear to citizens, and information is difficult to access. Suggestions here included:

+ Use info-graphics: Developing clear, accessible, and easy to read “info-graphics” explaining key systems.

+Use technology to summarize and inform: Make better use of technology, including providing short video summaries and updates on key issues or a weekly 20 minute television program with updates on key issues.

+ Teach while entertaining: Create a humorous show like “The Office” that helps highlight how city government systems work.

  • Implement new processes to improve follow-up and follow-through

A number of suggestions were made to improve the way we make long term decisions. These included:

+ Create, disseminate, and archive summary reports on key decisions. Create an “executive summary” type decision report form.  Information to be provided might include purpose, information sources, interests and trade-offs, key assumptions, and the decision made. This document would then be available for review throughout the life of a project and contain links to key documents like Council minutes or staff reports. Updates could be created as information is updated or circumstances change, and kept along with the original report.

+Raise the threshold for re-opening key decisions previously made. Establish a set of findings the Council needs to make before pausing/ending a project that has been funded and voted on by the public. Also the Council might be required to  establish a clear date for when the issue would next be considered or provide a viable alternative to meet an existing need before it votes to “pause” or cancel such a project.

+Use Dashboards . For key projects and goals, regular, easy to understand progress reports, such as visual public dashboard, could be used so that citizens can easily track progress and cost.

+Use iterative planning on key issues. This could work in tandem with the report on decisions made and dashboards. It would require that goals for projects be defined in advance and evaluated at defined stages. Data, including public comment, would be gathered in each of the fields as the process of implementation unfolds. At defined points, and particularly at project end, the Council would invite review and capture lessons learned for improving and refining its processes.

.      .       .

 One participant at the November 15 Community Commons observed,

“Changing from feeling like a small town to a large city is a rough transition for anywhere.”

and

“Something about a small community model that is very attractive, authentic. Everybody plugged into everything all the time.”

Greater transparency, improving the ways we communicate, and greater accountability and follow-through can help plug more people in, and create a more authentic sense that we are connected together as one community.

Come share your ideas and insights on  December 20.

Community Commons
Tuesday, December 20, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.

Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.