Transparency, Electric Service, And Focus

Municipal utilities exist to provide reliable service to city residents at affordable rates.     A Staff memo presented to the City Council on November 4, 2019 supported a 20-year contract at $4.5 million a year for a “utility scale” solar generation resource.  Part of the rationale was that this contract could help the City meet the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in the climate change plan that the City Council recently decided to adopt.  The City would plan to resell most of the energy it obtains under the contract in the wholesale market to offset its cost.  Here is the specific language in the Staff memo:

Our current renewable rate impact methodology is an incremental cost impact model which works with the assumption that renewable generation provides needed capacity, does not exceed current load and can be absorbed by the existing dispatchable resources. When the level of renewable resources has the potential to operate outside of these assumptions, additional impact assessments should be considered.  It is important to know that at some point we would be producing more energy relative to our load, depending upon the reconciliation interval considered (i.e. hourly, daily or monthly). As renewable resources are added we will reach a point where the energy produced from our resources exceeds Columbia’s load.  This excess generated energy will be settled directly in the MISO energy market.

In other words, we will be buying more power than we need for providing electric service to users in Columbia. This appears to be a shift away from a focus on what is needed to provide electric service. The Water and Light Advisory Board is also considering how to advance climate change goals in the integrated resource plan for the electric utility by procuring renewable resources, and it is not clear that they are giving equal consideration to more traditional approaches.

The purchase of renewable resources to meet goals other than the provision of service can be very costly for those who pay the rates for utility service, as this cautionary story shows. Citizens deserve clear and easily accessible information on the options being considered. Only when all appropriate options, including purchased power and other traditional resources are evaluated for cost and reliability and risk can we properly weight the trade-offs and decide what best meets the need for efficient, reliable and cost-effective electric service. We are not getting this kind of information.

Ask questions and be vigilant. It’s your utility and you pay the costs.

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.