Transmission lines cross and extend in all directions

In this Missourian file photo from March 12, 2015, transmission lines extend in all directions from the Bolstad Substation on Peabody Road.

Columbia’s electric system has adequate capacity to serve even the fastest developing areas for the next 10 years, according to citywide data cited in a report issued by Columbia Water & Light.

That assessment comes despite concern in recent years about capacity at the Perche Creek substation in southwest Columbia, and the report has drawn criticism from a former utility administrator.

Forecasts from the mid-2000s predicted energy use in Columbia would keep growing, Water & Light Assistant Director Ryan Williams said. In reality, though, electric use remained fairly stagnant, he said, mainly because of increased energy efficiency.

The report comes as the city’s Integrated Electric Resource and Master Planning Task Force is working with consultants to gather substation-specific data to find solutions to future capacity issues before they become a problem.

Energy use lower than city’s original predictions

Forecasts from the mid-to-late 2000s were higher than the loads the city is seeing now, Williams said. Those forecasts, which sparked plans for a new substation and the installation of new high-voltage power lines in the southwest, predicted peak energy use would be close to 400 megawatts. But the all-time peak was 277 megawatts in 2011, and this year’s was 260.

Williams said the 2008 recession is one reason electricity use isn’t as high as predicted. It caused a decline in development and electrical use.

Appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, dryers and air conditioners also are more efficient than they were 10 years ago, Williams said. Even energy-efficient light bulbs have helped.

The city also offers rebates that encourage people to use energy-efficient light bulbs or to insulate their homes, Williams said.

“Combining all of that together has had an effect on our load so that it’s been fairly stagnant for the past several years,” Williams said.

Williams said people he meets from other cities see the same trend.

Consultant sought to assess electric system’s stability

Water & Light is looking for a consultant to analyze the stability of the city’s electric system. Doing so will ensure the system meets standards of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.

The city is required to be registered with the corporation, which ensures efficiency and effectiveness of electrical grids to limit risk.

Stability analyses must be no older than five years, according to corporation standards. The last report, done by the consultant Leidos, was in December 2014.

“We can use the 2014 report for our study this year,” Williams said. “We were hoping to have a newer report, but I don’t think we’ll be able to have someone come in by the end of the year.”

An outside analyst is necessary because Water and Light “does not have the resources to perform stability analysis,” according to a report that the Columbia City Council reviewed at its Oct. 7 meeting.

“There really hasn’t been a substantial change that we would think would cause an issue of stability analysis,” Williams said. “But we need the report to prove that.”

Perche Creek substation

Perche Creek substation is of particular concern when it comes to capacity because it powers the fastest growing part of the city. The report the City Council requested a few months ago concluded its capacity “should be adequate for up to 10 years” as long as customer growth and load forecasts remain consistent.

Williams presented the report to the council Oct. 7. It was based on information collected by Quanta Technology in 2017.

“Our load hasn’t changed significantly since that time,” Williams said, “so the assumptions and recommendations and outcomes are still valid, or at least our engineering department feels it is.”

Perche Creek substation is the city’s western most substation. It has two transformers and six distribution circuits that serve mostly residential customers but also some commercial customers and big energy users such as the city’s wastewater and water treatment plants.

Perche Creek’s transformers are 30 to 40 years old, Williams said, and transformers typically last 50 to 60 years. Water & Light monitors them to ensure they are in good condition.

During peak demand, Perche Creek’s are at 80% capacity, according to the report, which also says there is enough capacity to draw from other substations if a Perche Creek transformer were to fail.

Transferring electric loads to other substations is easy, Williams said, and something linemen do almost daily as regular maintenance.

Williams said transformers rarely fail. When that happened at the Hinkson Creek substation a few years ago, Water & Light was able to draw back up power from other substations and restore power within an hour. It took about a month to replace the transformer.

The city has never seen two transformers at a substation fail at the same time.

“I’m not saying it would be impossible, but it would take something like a tornado, an initiating event, that would cause them to fail at the same time,” Williams said.

In a worst-case scenario, where the city lacks sufficient capacity to draw from other substations, the city would implement a load-shedding plan under which residential and commercial customers would lose power before critical customers such as hospitals.

“This is something so rare that we’ve never had to do it,” Williams said.

The Perche Creek substation also has room to expand if necessary because, unlike other substations, it is surrounded by city-owned property rather than buildings.

“It’s fairly blessed that way,” Williams said.

Concerns about the reliability of the report

Jim Windsor, former assistant director of utilities for the city, told the City Council he’s dissatisfied with the report.

Windsor’s main concerns, which he outlined in an email to council members, are that the report uses citywide data to assess a specific substation and that the data it cited are 2 years old.

The Perche Creek substation, Windsor said, has one transmission line and large developments, such as Westbury Village along Scott Boulevard, that will soon rely on it. The reliability of the substation can’t be assessed using citywide data, he said.

“If you’re going to gather data on a system level, you have to stay on the system level,” he said.

Gathering substation-specific data would be challenging, he added, but Water & Light won’t know true capacity levels until it does.

Williams said the Perche Creek substation report was based on citywide data because in the past the city has grown evenly.

Windsor also noted that in 2017, when the data was collected, the peak temperature was 97 degrees. He worries the Perche Creek transformer’s will fail in hotter weather and said they should be at 50% capacity during peak demand.

“At some point, we’re going to have a hot summer,” he said, adding that solutions being developed by the task force and Water & Light may take too long.

“They’re kicking the can down the road, and it’s putting customers at a significant risk,” he said.

Electric capacity a concern for years

The city has had concerns about the need for more electricity to keep up with a growing Columbia, according to previous Missourian reporting.

A 2007 assessment pointed to the need for a new substation and transmission line. In response, Water & Light found a location for a southern substation on Peach Tree Court, and the city bought the land in 2010. In 2015, Columbia voters approved a $63.1 million electric bond issue that earmarked $36.2 million for the substation and new 161-kilovolt power lines.

But the projects never happened, Despite committing $7.3 million to a power line route known as Option A, the council later nixed the project and was unable to find a new route suitable to the public. Now, Water & Light says the projects appear to be unnecessary.

‘We’ve got time’

Aware that Westbury Village and other developments are under way, the city is exploring potential solutions if capacity problems do arise. The Integrated Electric Resource and Master Planning Task Force was established in 2018 to find ways to make the city more energy efficient.

The task force is working with consultants to find substation-specific information, member Philip Fracica, a policy organizer for Renew Missouri, said.

The task force might gravitate toward nontraditional energy solutions that will appeal more to the public.

“We thought that a new substation and transmission lines to power that new substation was pretty much the best solution to handle the potential 400 megawatt load that forecasts in the early 2000s suggested we would have seen,” Williams said. “In working with the task force, one of the big things we hear as staff is that nonwired and nontraditional solutions is what the community is desiring.”

Those ideas could include using energy storage batteries to help transformers through peak times, Williams said.

Fracica said the task force wants to find other ways to use renewable energy and solutions that won’t cost customers too much.

“We’ve got time to allow this process to happen,” Williams said. “It’s not like Perche Creek is going to overload in the next summer.”

  • Public Life reporter, fall 2019. I am studying investigative journalism. Reach me at, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

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