Speak Up For Basic Services

It’s more than 72 hours since the snow started to fall on Friday and our street isn’t plowed.  Is yours?  On Friday the City reported that 7 of its plows were inoperable for “mechanical reasons”.  This morning (Monday) it reported that approximately 40 to 50% of residential streets had been cleared.  That means significant numbers were not cleared. At some point on Saturday over 8,000 people were without power.  If you have been reading the news, then you know Columbia has been losing the workers who operate garbage trucks and snowplows, and electric linemen because of a failure to pay competitive salaries.  If you have been reading this blog, then you know that the City has also been failing to make adequate investment in its electric infrastructure. And if you drive our roads you are familiar with potholes.

Every resident’s quality of life, and the economic health of our businesses, is affected by the City’s ability to effectively and affordably deliver basic services including road maintenance, electricity, water and sanitation, and trash pick up.  It’s past time for the City Council to dedicate more time and attention to our basic services.

Later this month, the City is holding three Strategic Plan Focus Groups: January 23rd, 24th, and 28th.  Those attending will be asked to comment on the City’s top priorities for its 2019-2022 Strategic Plan.  They will also be asked about policies and funding priorities.  Please consider signing up and advocating for our basic services.

All three meetings will be held at the Activity and Recreation Center, 1701 W. Ash St. at the following times.

  • Wednesday, January 23rd, dinner at 5:30 pm, focus group from 6:00 – 7:30 pm
  • Thursday, January 24th, dinner at 6:00 pm, focus group from 6:30 – 8:00 pm
  • Monday, January 28th, dinner at 6:30 pm, focus group from 7:00 – 8:30 pm

Dinner will be served, childcare will be provided, transportation is available, and each participant will receive a $25 gift card.

For more information and to register, please contact Carol Rhodes at Carol.Rhodes@como.gov or 573-874-7219.

Vision Lights On! Revisited

As a recent report from KOMU illustrates, Columbia is stuck in infrastructure limbo with respect to needed investment in its transmission lines and substations.  The report shows the council members who helped stop Option A, and who championed and then quietly abandoned Option E, deflecting questions by misquoting Water & Light and punting to a recently established committee whose chairperson stated it was not looking at transmission needs.

As has been explained in prior posts, we do need to strengthen our electric infrastructure now and also develop a clear plan for the future.  Ignoring this issue is like putting off buying auto insurance because there hasn’t been a crash “yet”.  Citizens deserve — but have not been getting — straightforward information, ongoing updates, and solutions that will keep the electrical infrastructure of Columbia up to par.

We invite those of you who are concerned and interested in finding a solution to join us in pursuing Vision: Lights On!  Follow this blog for future updates.

For those who are learning the history of this issue, here is an index of past posts on this topic.

Transparency and Transmission: Getting to Real Facts (9/27/18)

Transparency and Transmission: Option E Costs More (9/05/18)

More on Transmission (2/20/18)

Keeping An Eye On Our Electric Service (8/21/18)

Vision: Lights On! (2/26/18)

Our Infrastructure: Why So Little Energy Moving Forward? (7/11/17)

What Could Help Us Move Forward? (12/19/16)

Information, Misinformation, Statesmen And Politics (11/15/16)

Information And Misinformation – 1 (10/20/16)

Information And Misinformation – 2 (11/06/16)

Information And Misinformation – 3 (11/07/16)

You Can Make A Difference (10/15/16)

Improving Our Infrastructure – You Can Help! (9/19/16)

The Transmission Line: Many Questions (9/07/16)

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