With temperatures rising and loads growing, Columbia’s electric grid needs work

Around the country, cities’ infrastructure is being tested by the weight of extreme weather and climate change. In the past week temperatures in the pacific Northwest have trampled record highs, hitting 118 degrees in inland Oregon – an unprecedented situation that has pointed to a particular vulnerability with electric infrastructure, necessitating rolling blackouts throughout a region in dire need of air conditioning.

With the stark reality of climate change pushing weather phenomena to new heights, cities lucky enough to escape the early rounds of these types of events have a window to confront their own preparedness.

Had a heat wave of this caliber hit several hundred miles east, in the best-case scenario Columbia’s “load-shedding,” or targeted blackout contingency would have left many people baking in their homes. Worst case, if a central component to the distribution failed and there wasn’t enough backup, sections of the city could be without power for extended periods.

Columbia’s utility providers and government have been aware of, studying and assessing solutions to this issue for about the last decade. 

The problem lies in the city’s electric distribution network, which studies have found may lack the necessary redundancies to account for an especially heavy load or emergency situation as development grows. This means over time with population growth, or in an extreme heat scenario, or in the case of weather damage the distribution network may not have the capacity to keep fully functioning.

There isn’t a single temperature that would necessarily cause the load to reach a dangerous point, but Jim Windsor, former assistant director of the Columbia utilities department, estimates this sort of threat would most likely kick in in a situation in which the area reached temperatures over 100 degrees for a sustained period of consecutive days. 

Windsor explained that when temperatures rise, air conditioning units work harder and run more often, causing cycles to sync and electrical load to build up. In Columbia, though residents are using less energy per capita according to Columbia Power Production Superintendent Christian Johanningmeier, population growth and development have stretched the grid thin enough that an exceptional load could cause issues.

Johanningmeier said the city’s electric grid has been assessed and does meet the required Federal Energy Regulatory Commission standards. Those standards though do allow a load-shedding contingency, which means that if the company were anticipating an overload to any part of the system, some people’s power would be turned off to reduce the load. According to Johanningmeier, this would occur on a rolling basis, keeping individuals’ length of time without power limited, and be determined by where the threat was occurring and the length of the situation. 

Windsor cited a 2018 Quanta Technology study which concluded that the Perche Creek, Harmony Branch and Hinkson Creek substations are all likely candidates to require capacity additions, like more transformers or another substation, to provide load relief, based on load growth projections for the next ten years. A 2015 report from the Mayor’s Task Force on Infrastructure likewise noted that substations servicing the downtown area were in need of additional capacity in the case of a transformer failure.

The city is looking to address the problem, but has been stalled by bureaucracy for the past several years. In 2016, a plan funded by the voters, which both Windsor and Johanningmeier describe as an adequate and reasonable solution, to build a new substation and transmission line was approved and set to begin construction. But opposition from residents in the affected area — some with questions about a lack of transparency, some worried about issues like property values, according to Windsor – during an open meeting caused the city council to pause the plan. Since this move, there has been a lack of momentum or support behind any solution.

The city is currently waiting on commissioned research from Siemens, a German technology conglomerate, which Johanningmeier said have been stalled by the pandemic. This report should set the city up to assess new options, though Johanningmeier said the city, through the Integrated Electric Resource and Master Plan Task Force, is still considering the state of the grid and options now.

“Siemens has done some transmission analysis for us, and they have determined given our current loads and the projected loads that we can meet the FERC standards for the foreseeable future,” Johanningmeier said. “However, in some cases they would require us shedding load in certain parts of town… And so I think the question that (task force) is somewhat wrestling with is a) ‘Is shedding load an acceptable way for the utility to meet its obligation for FERC compliance?’ which it does, and b) ‘Is that an acceptable customer level service?’” 

In the meantime, the city has expanded use of alternative sources of energy, Johanningmeier said.

Though alternative energy source use may take some of the load off the electric grid at certain times, Windsor said, it alone won’t solve the original issue. The limitations of sources like solar and wind can lead to energy use spikes at night or during certain weather conditions. 

Climate change isn’t just bringing on temperature changes. Storm and flooding events, like last week’s, will only continue to become more extreme, bringing on greater risk of physical damage to the system.

Johanningmeier noted that it’s important to adapt to weather issues as a whole, from more immediate maintenance like continuous tree trimming to moving forward with plans to add vital redundancies to the grid. 

Windor said as plans move forward, the process needs to be made more transparent in order to keep the ball rolling and allow the community to know what the danger is and what the options are, pointing to the mismanagement leading to the catastrophic blackouts in Texas last winter.

“It’s been a process that has put the residents of Columbia in danger if something had happened in the meantime,” he said, noting that even with all the deliberation he’s dubious that this is headed towards an as effective and financially-viable a solution as the original plan.

Many cities, especially in the last couple of years, have paid a high price for the onslaught of extreme weather. A lack of electricity during freezing or dangerously high temperatures has led to death tolls in states around the U.S. this year, and abroad reliance on rolling blackouts has had major economic and deadly effects.

Climate change is highlighting and exploiting infrastructure vulnerabilities, on a scale that will only increase. Going forward, the best time to pay attention to infrastructure resiliency and contingencies is before they’re needed.

Grace Zokovitch, reporter, is a senior at Mizzou studying investigative print and digital reporting, as well as economics.

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