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Power lines in Fifth Ward Council race are subject of debate

Sunday, January 6, 2013 | 7:03 p.m. CST; updated 8:47 a.m. CST, Monday, January 7, 2013
The city held an open house Tuesday to allow the community to discuss and review three proposed electric transmission routes that were proposed in 2010. The estimated total cost of construction ranges from $7.5 million to $56.25 million, according to Columbia Water and Light.

*This story has been changed to correct the spelling of Laura Nauser's name.

COLUMBIA — The winner of the Feb. 5 election for the Fifth Ward Council seat will likely oversee the approval and construction of new electric transmission lines connecting a proposed substation at Mill Creek to the city's existing power grid.

Susan "Tootie" Burns, Mark H. Jones and Laura Nauser* are contending for the seat, which was vacated by Helen Anthony, who resigned.

They each have different takes on the three designs proposed by engineers to address community concerns, including perceived health risks and property values.

Electrical regulators mandated that city utility operators ensure the reliability of their electrical grid or be fined up to $1 million a day for noncompliance. Also, Columbia's growth requires the upgrades, city engineers say. Regardless of the option selected, Columbia residents will pay for the cost of the project over the next 20 years.

"The reality is, we don't have a choice," said Adam Schuttler, transmissions planning engineer at Columbia Water and Light. He is responsible for planning and ensuring the reliability of the power lines that serve Columbia, MU and Fulton.

The need for new electrical infrastructure was identified in 2007 when Columbia Water and Light participated in a Southeast Reliability Electric Corp. study group. The study found two scenarios that could cause an overload of the city's electrical system and lead to an outage in Columbia and perhaps far beyond.

Water and Light designed three plans to connect the proposed Mill Creek substation to the city's power grid. Option A carries more power using 161-kilovolt lines, which last longer. Option B and B2 are electrically identical, with the majority of the lines being 69 kilovolts, which have a shorter lifespan. Option B2 runs farther west of the city.

All three plans were presented to the public at an open house on Nov. 13.

Water and Light mailed pamphlets to 35,000 electrical customers on Jan. 2 in a citywide effort to collect input from the people who would pay the cost of the project over the next 20 years. 

Buried lines more expensive than overhead lines

Overhead transmission lines would cost roughly 91 cents to $1.18 per customer each month for 20 years. Buried lines would cost from $6.82 to $8.77 per customer each month for 20 years. The estimates were provided by an out-of-town contractor, Schuttler said.

Burns and Nauser said they see opportunities to save money when purchasing easements, the areas of land the power lines pass through.

Nauser, speaking of Option B2, which runs near the Katy and MKT trails, said a lot of property in that area is farm land, which is valued at agricultural prices, lower than residential prices.

"The ratepayers should get a product where they think they've invested wisely," Jones  said.

Water and Light officials share Jones' concern.

"The more you can do currently, the less the long-term costs," said Jim Windsor, manager of rates and fiscal planning at Water and Light.

Schuttler said he hopes that in addition to the cost of the project, the candidates and residents will consider the longevity and engineering quality of the proposed designs.

"We are spending all this money for a Band Aid," Schuttler said of Option B and B2. "We are going to be right back here in 10 years, maybe even sooner than that because we have to plan ahead."

Because Option A uses 161-kilovolt lines, which allow for more load, it provides the flexibility the city needs to grow, Schuttler said.

Designs reflect easements on private property

Of the three proposed designs, Jones favors Option B2.

"I prefer the idea that costs the least and that disturbs the least amount of private property," he said. 

Nauser's criteria are similar, but she prefers Option A.

"Option A has easements and the longest projected lifespan," she said. "We have to meet our reliability needs and impact the least amount of people, the least amount of property and have the lowest cost."

However, Nauser said she would not vote for any of the three plans without first consulting her constituents.

Burns said she is appreciative of the designs as presented by Water and Light on Nov. 13.

"Some Fifth Ward residents were interested in the aesthetics involved, and the engineers said at the Nov. 13 meeting that they could do a combination of overhead and underground lines, so I would like to see how that would be implemented," she said.

Community concerns about property values

Aesthetics and the effect of the power lines upon property values are concerns that have arisen since the roll out of Option A.

"Property owners are justifiably concerned," Burns said. "Yet, we need to ensure we have adequate power."

Jones said aesthetics are important but a matter for residents to decide.

Nauser said she didn't know of any studies that show the impact of transmission lines on real estate values.

"Homes are bought and sold, and there are transmission lines all over the country," Nauser said. "Those lines in our community, we don't see them. They are part of our landscape."

Windsor, who manages payments for Water and Light, agrees the decision is for the community to make, but the consequences will be borne by all ratepayers. "If they want to come back in  20 years and spend more money, that is a decision they will have to make," he said.

Schuttler said it is hard to predict how property values will be affected. "It's completely dependent on the neighborhood. If you put a power line in a field, there is no effect," he said.

All the candidates agree that many residents would not want transmission lines in their backyard.

Community concerns about health risks

Candidates have different opinions about community concerns on health risks related to the new lines.

Research about health risks posed by electromagnetic fields has been inconclusive despite decades of work on the subject. The National Institutes of Health provides a summary of the scientific findings.

"The public perception is the higher the voltage, the greater the danger of EMF (electromagnetic field). Because EMF is a function of electrical current, the higher the voltage in the lines, the lower the EMF at the same load level," Shuttler said, speaking of Option B and B2. In other words, the lower voltage lines, the types used in Options B and B2, produce a stronger electromagnetic field.

"You can make the argument that there is a problem with EMF, if you want to use scientific studies that never showed a true correlation, but if you want to talk about it seriously, there has never been any true correlation," Shuttler said.

Burns agreed research is ambiguous: "I would go with the research that says despite two decades of work on this issue, the evidence is inconclusive."

Jones said there  is a perception from a segment of the community that the power lines pose a health risk. "We won't be able to get rid of this health risk in the next few months before the lines are built, yet the opinion of people who feel this way must be respected," he said.

Nauser said the issue is still up for debate.

"EMF is like any issue where you have a study and you have perception," she said. "You have a study that says it's safe, and a study that says it isn't. We are in the information phase. Until a public hearing, it is my responsibility to listen."

Supervising editor is Simina Mistreanu.


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