Columbia seeks $63.1 million bond issue for electric grid upgrade



The Columbia power grid | Courtesy of Columbia Water and Light
The Columbia power grid | Courtesy of Columbia Water and Light

Just as widespread traffic jams can arise from one car crashing, so can a whole area black out when a regional electric system malfunctions.

The problem of cascading caused the 2003 blackout on the East Coast, resulting in an estimated $6 billion loss. One solution to this problem is building a new transmission line, which functions like a new traffic lane to the reduce risk of widespread problems.

To avoid potential cascading outages in its grid, Columbia has put a $63.1 million bond issue for upgrading the city’s electric system on the April 7 ballot. The bond issue would primarily provide funding for the constriction of high-voltage transmission lines and a new substation in south Columbia.

The need for the project was raised during a 2007 electric reliability assessment required by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.

To meet federal requirements, additional transmission lines were added on the east side of town in 2008. A site for constructing the Mill Creek substation, which is on the west side of town, was also purchased in 2010.

The substation and eight miles of the transmission lines, which would carry 161 kilovolts of electricity, would be the final step in meeting the federal standards.

Right now, survey work for the location of the substation is being conducted along the existing transmission route. The next goal for this year is completing 60 percent of the line design and starting construction of the new substation. The substation is scheduled for completion in 2017.

Though it is primarily focused on southern and eastern Columbia, the project will help balance the city’s entire electrical system, Columbia Water and Light said. Since Columbia imports 90 percent of its power from other places in the region, the transmission lines will help to connect the city with those resources.

Columbia Water and Light spokeswoman Connie Kacprowicz said two bond sales would be issued with an estimated 5 percent interest rate if the ballot issues passes. One would be released after the April election, and the other one would be issued sometime around 2017 or 2018

The bond issue also includes several other projects for the electric utility. If the ballot measure passes, the city would boost monthly electric bills by 3 percent in this fiscal year, 2 percent in fiscal 2017 and 1 percent in fiscal 2018.

Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid | Courtesy of the City of Columbia Missouri
Bob McDavid | Courtesy of the City of Columbia Missouri

“You can vote no, but we still have to do these fixes, and we have to raise the rate,” Mayor Bob McDavid said during a January city council meeting.

If the measure is rejected, city officials said monthly bills would need to be increased between 20 to 25 percent to pay for the necessary upgrades. And the failure to meet federal guidelines could result in fines up to$1 million per day, Columbia Water and Light said.

Apart from the bond issue, an addition of $27.5 million will come from the city’s electric utility fund. The bond issue will cost the city $6 million — $3.1 million of those costs will be paid for with bond funds.

Thomas Connor, a resident of Leawood Terrace in southwest Columbia, said he doesn’t support implementing the program now. “In 2015, we have many alternatives available to us,” Connor said. “We should consider them all before we spend tens of millions on the kind of last century solution.”

Kacprowicz said the city has been seeking other ways to solve this problem. She said the city’s load modifying program and energy efficiency program are performing well.

The load modifying program, which reduces peak demand by controlling air conditioning loads when the electric system load is at its highest and offers incentives to large commercial and industrial customers who reduce their consumption during peak hours, saved around 10 megawatts of electric usage in 2013, Kaprowicz said. 

In 2014, 7.22 percent of all energy sources for Columbia were renewable, exceeding the goal of 5 percent, Columbia Water and Light said in its Renewable Energy Portfolio.

Columbia City Councilwoman Laura Nauser said the current economic climate makes it an opportune time to undertake the project.

“I think we should take the opportunity of the lowest bond rate in the history,” Nauser said, “rather than taking a gamble and postponing it.”

Kaprowicz also emphasized the importance of a sense of urgency regarding the project.

“We can’t wait until the point where we were in violation,” she said, “and then take another five years to fix this problem.”

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