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.

Learn About Your Electric Service!

Matt Pitzer, responding to a KOMU report regarding “forgotten funds” for water service, stated “When we ask for a bond issue that’s going to lead to a rate increase then we should do what we said we were going to do.” Mayor Treece criticized Water & Light for not “keeping promises they made.”  Yet both have stood in the way of proceeding with the needed changes in our transmission infrastructure.  This despite a public vote approving the related bond issue and a 3% rate increase that has been in place for several years now.  How might we hold Council accountable when it is responsible for the change or misdirection of funds voted by the public? A change that has cost us millions to date? How might we require an  accounting of the overall costs incurred?

Electricity is one of our most critical services.  More of us need to be informed in order to understand the decisions made and their consequences for cost and reliability of service.  Osher is offering a class that can help you understand the issues affecting your electric service so that you can better monitor and weigh in on emerging issues.  You can register for one of two sections, one on Monday afternoons (March 9-April 6) and one on Tuesday evenings (April 14-May 5).

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?


Vision Lights On! Ignoring Reality

On February 4, 2019, the City Council voted for yet another development on the Southwest side. That development would place additional stress on already overloaded electric infrastructure in this part of town. Before voting, they received the warning copied below from a retired Water & Light executive.  Of course it was ignored.

Why should we be concerned about our electric infrastructure?  Keep reading! And join in Vision Lights On!

Good Morning,
Because the City Council has failed to address the electric load issue in the south part of Columbia, further development puts all southern Columbia residents at risk of outages, particularly during the summer peak season.  All development should be stopped until that issue is addressed.
I do not live in the area impacted by this overloading (or development) and I can not attend the Council meeting tomorrow night but I wanted to make you aware of this issue since it is not being addressed.
The proposed development would receive power from the Perche Substation.  That substation is loaded over 150% of design capacity.  The electric system requires redundancy.  Substations should never be loaded to the point that if one transformer fails, the load can’t be switched to another transformer.  At the Perche Substation, that point was reached several years ago and if something happens now a prolonged outage would occur.
The bond issue, that citizens passed by a large majority in 2015, would have addressed the issue by building a new substation in south Columbia; off-loading the current overloading; and, built a second transmission line to the Perche Substation (currently there is only one transmission line to Perche).  The original plan would have had the work completed by late spring 2017.
Currently there is no decision on what is to be done to address the overloading across south Columbia, yet development continues without addressing the consequences.   A study was completed several months ago that showed that the “Option E”, proposed by the mayor, would have cost nearly double the original Option A; however, that report has not been publicly discussed and nothing is being done to address the issue.
The only way this development could be serviced without attaching to the Perche Substation would be to build an “express” feeder from the Harmony Substation.  That would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (maybe over a million) more than connecting to Perche.
I am retired now, but was responsible for forecasting electric system load.  Some Council members insist that the load hasn’t grown and therefore there isn’t an issue in southern Columbia.  There are two major flaws in that argument:
1. The historic system load occurred when the actual temperature reached 105 and the nighttime temperature never got below 80.  The recent highest summer temperatures have not exceeded 100.  Until similar high temperatures occur the actual system load can only be projected.
2. The forecast is for the “system” not for individual substations.  To be connected to the larger national grid, electric utilities have to forecast how much energy will flow into their system (transmission system) during peak conditions (subject to fines for failure).  Forecasting loads on individual substations (the distribution system) is not regulated and was not done.  As I stated previously Perche is well beyond design criteria that allows redundancy in the system.
This development should not even be discussed until the City Council addresses the electric system overloading in south Columbia.
A local attorney, with electric utility experience, has been attempting to educate the public on this issue.  For more information go to the following link
Jim Windsor
Assistant Director of Utilities – Retired

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.

Information and Misinformation – 3

In this post we look at three additional claims made by members of the public who questioned the Option A transmission line route during our forums.

The first was the suggestion that W & L was investing in transmission for the benefit of Boone Electric customers. The fact is that one can’t simply eyeball the landscape and determine who is and is not a city customer. We learned that, for the last 30 years, electric service has been governed by a territory agreement between Boone Electric and the City. Although there is a section of southwest Columbia that is served by Boone Electric under that agreement, W & L is required to provide, and does provide, service to customers on either side of that section.

Representatives of W & L further explained to us that the electric distribution systems of Boone Electric and the City are not compatible. This is because they are operated at different voltages, opposite phase rotations, and different phase angles. This makes it practically impossible for the City to serve Boone Electric customers or for Boone Electric to serve City customers.

W & L representatives also noted that although growth in southern Columbia is primarily due to new residential development, there has been a lot of new commercial development as well. This includes all the businesses along Grindstone and Nifong. Some of the biggest commercial loads have been for medical centers which use use a lot of electricity for all their equipment.

The second misconception raised in the forums related to the thought that the City might be able to avoid building new transmission lines through better energy efficiency or conservation. We also asked W & L about that, and here is the response:

In the 2008/2009 time frame we greatly increased our electric efficiency programs according to the utility cost/benefit established in our Integrated Resource Plan. From 2008 through 2015, the cumulative reduction in the electric load was estimated to be 38.86 million kilowatt hours with a total peak reduction of 5,891 kilowatts.

As a result our electric load projections have been modified from a 2% annual increase to a 1.25% annual increase. Renewable resources like solar help lower the electric demand during the day but the production starts dropping off as our electric peak increases (peaks happen around 5 to 7 pm). Note that large amounts of electricity can’t be stored for an economical price.

Although energy efficiency, controlling the demand, and new solar resources are great achievements for our community, they simply won’t solve the problem of a second feed into the Perche Creek substation or the overloading we already have at our existing substations. ”

Third, we asked about the various claims, made during the forums, that “Option A” was the “most expensive” option. “Expense” is actually a complicated issue that requires consideration of different time frames, and benefits gained. W & L shared with us information (also shared with the City Council) indicating that Option A, while initially more costly in nominal dollars, also provides more capacity and resolves issues for a much longer period. That means it is lower cost, or higher value, over time.

You can review this, and other information related to the transmission line issue, on an archive webpage created by Water and Light to help keep the public informed.

Information and Misinformation – 1

As a community we want to make wise decisions about our infrastructure and our future.  Wise decisions require consideration of facts, needs, and consequences. On January 19 of this year, the City Council voted to  “pause”  the building of an electric transmission line and substation that had been approved by voters in 2015 and for which bonds had been issued. The Council has not announced when it will again review this “pause” nor has it talked much about how the pause is affecting economic development or our electric service.  City staff, however, recently announced that it is preparing a request to extend the moratorium on building downtown due to concerns with electric infrastructure.

We asked Connie Kaprowicz of Columbia Water & Light, who joined us in the August on-line Trib Talks forum, to help us understand some of the issues involved.

1C1C: When we look at past forums, new articles, and on-line comments, we seem to be talking about two things, the Mill Creek substation and the overall  transmission line. Can you explain why each is needed and how these inter-relate?

W& L: Electricity is generated at a power station or power plant from fossil fuels or renewable resources. Approximately 90% of Columbia’s energy comes from sources outside the city. Once the power is generated, it has to be moved to where it is going to be used. Large amounts of power are transferred with electric transmission lines. An interconnected network of transmission lines is commonly referred to as the power grid.

Transmission lines feed into substations. At substations, transformers step down the power to lower voltages. From there, power is delivered to individual electric customers by distribution lines.In the older sections of town, distribution lines are mounted on wooden poles. New distribution lines in Columbia must be placed underground according to city ordinances.

electric system diagram

1C1C: Does the Mill Creek Substation still need to be built even if the transmission line is built on a route other than Option A?

W & L: Yes, As noted above, the Mill Creek substation is needed due to the electric load growth in the southern area of town. Our other substations serving the area are loaded over the suggested amount. As we explained at our May work session presentation, electric systems must have reserved capacity for times of high loads and/or problems with the system such as those caused by storms. Both the Hinkson and Perche substations are overcapacity as shown in the chart below.

  • Substation loading goal: two transformers at 50%, three transformers at 66.6%
Year Grindstone (3*) Hinkson (3*) Perche (2*)
2007 41.5% 67.6% 61.8%
2010 44.7% 68.6% 64.4%
2015 48.6% 64.2% 72.0%

*number of transformers

1C1C: Suggestions were made in past forums and in Trib Talk that rather than building the Mill Creek substation, additions could just be made at another substation like Hinkson. You indicated in our August on-line forum that that was not a good option. Could you explain in layman terms why?

W & L: There is not room to expand the Hinkson Creek substation. Even if the University would sell us additional land, it is not the best site since it is prone to flooding. Even then we would still need to build transmission lines to get the power to where it is being used. That would involve running lines through the south side of town.

We have also already purchased the land for the Mill Creek substation which is in a better spot geographically to serve the southern side of town.

1C1C: You indicated in the August on-line forum that even if we went with the suggested alternate route for the transmission line, which has been dubbed “Option E”, additional transmission lines would still be needed on the south side of town. Can you say more about that?

W & L: Option A resolved two technical issues: One is providing a second feed into the Perche Creek substation and the other is to reduce substation loading (see info above). Option E, which was proposed by the Mayor at a council work session in May, 2016, addresses the issue of getting a second 161 kV feed to Perche substation. It does not address the need to reduce substation loading. There was no direction from the City Council on how they would like to tie the Mill Creek substation into the transmission and distribution system in the event that the transmission line route changed. So that issue would still need to be resolved.

1C1C: One of the ideas about Option E was that we might be able to place our lines on poles owned by Ameren UE and Associated Electric. What is the status there?

W & L: After the Mayor proposed Option E we first needed to do some modeling work. Modeling work evaluates any possible engineering problems that could impact the entire system so it is very time consuming. Think of it as looking at all the things that can happen during one minute of play during a team sport. There are many different possibilities and combinations of things that could present risk. After our modeling did not find any red flags, we sent our modeling work to our neighboring utilities to analyze and get back to us. We do not have a response yet from any of them. Once we do hear back from them, we could possibly do another work session with council to see if they want us to pursue Option E. We still need feedback on what to do about the Mill Creek substation.

1C1C: During our August forum at least one citizen suggested that we need not be concerned about delay in moving forward with these projects because the electric system didn’t shut down over the summer. Can you comment on that?

W & L: In our personal lives, living without electricity is hard. For businesses, it can impact their income and level of service to their customers. During the storm in 2014, the wooden 80’ tall transmission poles on Fairview snapped and it took some of the largest line trucks in the Midwest to repair them. The outage from this storm lasted for five days for some of the customers. Every situation is different when it comes to problems. Small transformers on distribution lines can be easily replaced. Damage or equipment failure at the substations could take weeks/months. That is why we plan for redundancy and reserves.

Think of a road system. When there is construction or an accident you have to detour. The electric transmission and distribution system should never be run at 100% because space is needed if we need to isolate a problem and serve customers from another line. Unlike traffic, electricity can’t get stuck in a traffic jam because overloading (heavy traffic) could cause cascading problems. This would be like what happened on the east coast in the early 2000s.

Reserves refers to having extra energy available to serve an unexpected peak. This is federally regulated as well. We have to show what our peak usage is and then secure extra energy resources beyond that. All of this a part of keeping the electric grid reliable.This summer we were close to a new electric peak but luckily it rained and a cold front moved in.

Transmission planning is complex and takes time. We first identified the need for this project in 2004 when our models indicated we would have issues with the system even under normal conditions by 2020, taking into account growth. At present, we could experience problems even before 2020, particularly if any element of the system is out of service (weather, malfunctioning equipment, etc). I personally do a lot of worrying during every storm and during periods of hot, humid weather when it doesn’t cool down much at night.

1C1C: In an earlier chat you mentioned that the  Average Electric Service Availability Index is 99.9876 for Columbia out of a hundred and that a drop in this could hurt our economic development efforts. Please expand on this. 

W & L: Our community has invested in our electric system since 1904 so it is reliable. Having a reputation of unreliable electric service is not a good thing when we seek new businesses in our community. Reliability is affected by a number of factors related production, demand from customers, and delivery. Many people don’t realize that unlike water or natural gas, electricity can’t be stored by utilities in large amounts (existing batteries for use with solar energy production are very expensive and can only store a small amount) . Electricity also does not run in one direction through a “pipe” like water or natural gas. Electrons move in different ways which is one of the things that makes electrical engineering a specialized and complex field. Businesses – particularly those that are energy intensive or, like medical facilities, that rely on equipment that is sensitive to fluctuations in power, – are concerned about both power quality (avoiding fluctuations in voltage) and availability on demand.

1C1C: Can you say more about “availability on demand”?

W & L: Because electricity can’t be stored, an electric utility has to provide the power needed at every minute of the day, even as the level of demand varies. Although the amount of electricity that the city needs over time is measured in kilowatt hours the level needed at any given time is referred to as “demand”. If everyone in Columbia, especially commercial customers with large equipment, turned on everything all at once for 2 minutes, we would have to meet that huge demand for those 2 minutes. Meeting that demand is not just a matter of producing the electricity – we have to deliver it as well. This means that our transmission and distribution systems must be robust enough to meet any spikes in demand at any given moment in time. Our ability to deliver is affected by both transmission and distribution constraints. In an ideal world, demand would be constant throughout every minute of the day. We don’t live in an ideal world, and that is why we have to build a system that can handle spikes in demand. Since large commercial customers and industrial customers demand can have a big impact on our system, they are charged a kilowatt hour charge (like residential) but they also have a separate demand charge. The following graphic will help you understand energy v.demand for our system.

1C1C:  Thank you Connie.  To our readers, continue to check this blog for more posts in this series! 

You Can Make A Difference

Join us for another Community Commons on October 18 from 7-9 pm at the Tribune offices (enter on Walnut St. between 4th and Providence).

Those who attended the first Community Commons held on September 20, divided into two separate groups for two separate, wide ranging conversations.

In the first, the focus was on building bridges and addressing inequities. Recognizing that inequity/inequality is very difficult to change, the group asked “what could we offer now so our children and grandchildren especially aren’t sitting around talking about this?” Ideas included special zoning to facilitate places where people could gather and interact, more press about activities in the African- American community that is informed by leaders in that community (it was noted those leaders should be identified by the black community and not denominated by those outside), more marketing and diversification of minority owned businesses, and the need for minority communities to also create community among their own members so as to better connect and celebrate accomplishments. The need for more dialogue among all citizens was also emphasized. The group also discussed various types of events that would help break down “taboo” things and locations. Come and contribute your ideas on October 18!

Another group focused on citizen-centered planning. Much of the discussion in this group focused on the stalled transmission line, which was brought up as an example of “broken governance.” Questions asked here included, “Who does council talk to? Just the loudest self interested voices? Experts available to them? Staff?” “How can we better involve citizens at the appropriate best time, not at the last minute?”, “How can we elevate issues to a focus on the public good?” and “How could those harmed or experiencing a monetary loss as a result of a decision made for the common good be compensated?” During the discussions a  distinction was made between “politicians” who are easily swayed by public dissent and “statesmen” who work to understand, translate, and resolve complex issues and move the community forward. Characteristics of “statesmen” that were identified included respecting process, respecting staff, focusing on the common good, and being honest about the hard issues. Participants agreed that citizens needed to be more involved on an ongoing basis as these issues unfolded and that both citizens and leaders needed to be accountable for their actions. What constitutes accountability and how do we achieve it?   Join us on October 18 as we explore this issue further.

We look forward to seeing you on October 18.

Improving Our Infrastructure – You Can Help!

We know there is a lot of interest in improving our infrastructure and how we as a community plan for the future.  Readers and dialogue participants alike have shared thoughts for how we might improve.  Consider the following comments posted by a reader to articles on the current transmission line controversy.

Something that might have helped prevented the emergence (or resurgence) or organized opposition to Option A was for the city to continue to have ongoing public forums and meetings that would have provided citizens opportunities to hear updates or to voice concerns. Too often what happens is the city is all about having public meetings and getting citizen input when projects are proposed (as they are legally required to do) but then once that process is overwith and projects are approved, all communication ceases. And then one morning, a resident wakes up to find that the city is about to plant a giant electric pole in his yard or clearcut all his trees. Nobody, but nobody likes these kinds of surprises. (Posted by “Ruckus” Jan. 31, 2016)

A different approach is needed then just holding interested party meetings or Ward Checkins. Perhaps take a cue from the Sewer Dept in which affected individuals along the routes are kept updated by periodic mailings with detailed information of project plans and progress, and provide the name of an actual contact person within W and L who is actually involved in the project who is a contact point for residents who have concerns or questions. This approach has seemed to work well for the Sewer Utility on the Private Common Collector Elimination projects. The engineer responsible for any given project is the contact point for residents/neighborhood associations. (Posted by “Ruckus” Feb. 1, 2016)

Do you have ideas of your own to share about how we might improve the way our community approaches its infrastructure issues? Join us September 20 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the offices of the Tribune (101 N. 4th St., enter on Walnut Street) for another citizen-led dialogue.

Share what’s on your mind and listen to others.

Real people, real dialogue.  Join in a conversation that matters.

We hope to see you tomorrow, September 20 at 7 pm.