It’s been nearly a decade since the city first announced the need for electrical transmission lines in south Columbia. The fight keeps heating up.
Eighty feet high, 8-foot circumference, steel pole. Three thick cords of wire, stretching and sagging slightly over the course of 500 feet. The cords connect with another pole, 80 feet high, 8-foot circumference, steel. Then they connect with another, and another, and so on for 12 miles.
The wires hum faintly. Underneath the poles and slightly to the side, for most of the way, is sidewalk, grass, passing cars, and trees. Underneath and slightly to the side, for some of the way, are well-kept bushes, well-trimmed lawns, and roofs. The wires radiate an electromagnetic field that may or may not reach through the roof at about the same strength as a cell phone, and that electromagnetic field may or may not cause childhood leukemia.
Inside the house, a coffee maker makes coffee. A television plays television. Phone chargers charge phones. Looking up from the porch of the houses, the wires are strung along in the foreground of the sky.
In 2007, the city’s Water and Light Department formally identified the need for an additional substation and electrical distribution system in south Columbia. Informally, the need had been swelling for a while. New development, mostly quiet, affluent subdivisions, had begun reconfiguring the southwest of the city, and at the same time, the federal government was pushing tighter reliability standards on utility providers, private and public.
“I think for Water and Light staff members, we’ve always prided ourselves on growing with the community and keeping up with electric demands, and that’s been since 1904,” Connie Kacprowicz, the department’s communications supervisor, says. “We just want to get to a point where we can get the solution in place before its needed so we’re not running into a situation where people don’t have a reliable source of electricity.”
That’s sometimes complicated for a municipal-owned utility, working under the scope of the public and the city council that the public elects. In 2009, with data and research ready, Water and Light began collecting comments and suggestions from the public and from council about the grid upgrades. After a year of that, in March 2010, council approved the acquisition of property to build the substation. After the substation was built, transmission lines would have to connect that project, near Providence and Nifong, with the existing McBaine, Grindstone, and Perche Creek substations.
The space between those substations is southwest Columbia, with all of its new development, much of it residential, peaceful, and scenic. This area is unavoidably in the middle of where power lines needed to be. Water and Light spent seven months drawing up the 10 routes they thought would be the most efficient and “least objectionable.” But they all cut through the same area, in one way or another.
“When you’re looking at the maps,” Kacprowicz says, “trying to find how to connect the dots without running through a residential section is very complicated.”
“When you’re looking at the maps, trying to find how to connect the dots without running through a residential section is very complicated.” — Connie Kacprowicz, Water and Light
Southwest Columbia is the city’s fifth ward. Their councilwoman, Laura Nauser, is short and small, with thin glasses and lots of energy. A PAC called Columbians for Responsible Government recently tried to get Nauser recalled from her council seat, based on her handling of the power line project, which she had reopened to council discussion after two years and $3.5 million dollars spent. In April, the petition came up 60 signatures short of the requirement to force a special election.
“I first heard about [transmission lines] back in 2005, after I won my first election,” Nauser says. “The then-Water and Light Department director, Dan Dasho, made a comment to me, and I don’t know what the context was, or why he says this, but it was to the effect of, ‘Just wait until we have the conversation about transmission lines.’”
Politics surrounding the project have grown increasingly toxic. Between 2010 and 2011, Water and Light developed “Option A,” their suggested route for the new transmission lines connecting the substations. Option A strings 12 miles of 161-kilovolt transmission lines through the area, mostly along Nifong and Scott Boulevard, and skirts through several subdivisions, including Thornbrook, where Nauser lives, Oak Park, and the Cascades. Water and Light also developed an Option B, which replaces the 161-kilovolt lines in the residential areas with smaller 69-kilovolt lines and runs 161-kilovolt lines along the outside edge of city limits, around most development. The department used a multi-faceted decision matrix to determine the best possible routes for each option, and they’ve repeatedly recommended Option A to city council, saying that it provides the most reliability and long-term stability possible.
“I’ve always thought that Option A was the preferred option,” Nauser says, “and everything was done to make Option A look the best.”
Some Fifth Ward residents raised questions about the controversial science linking long-term power line exposure and cancer, particularly in children. Others worried about the impact power lines would have on their property values, whether due to health concerns or aesthetics. The idea of burying the 161-kilovolt lines underground gained some momentum, despite warnings from Water and Light that undergrounding would add tens of millions of dollars in cost, which would mean citywide rate increases.
Nauser unsuccessfully ran for state congress in 2010, then didn’t run for council reelection in 2011, when Water and Light was in the middle of developing Options A and B. When she came back to council, following a special election in February 2013, the city was in the end stages of picking a route. They voted on the issue in a crowded council meeting in July of that year.
According to the minutes from that meeting, Nauser said that she thought Option A was the most financially beneficial to the community, but that the public had expected some undergrounding; she supported a hybrid version of Option A, with undergrounding at least done near schools. Ultimately, the council voted 5–2 in favor of Option A with no undergrounding, with Barbara Hoppe and Laura Nauser dissenting.
In the afternoon of August 14, 2003, a 345-kilovolt transmission line sagged into a tree in Walton Hills, Ohio. The contact caused the line to fail, which shifted power to another 345-kilovolt line, causing it to also sag into a tree and fail. Over the next 2 hours, the resulting shift in the electrical grid, multiplying with every failed line, would blackout parts of 8 states and Ontario. It was the largest blackout in North American history.
Following the blackout, the federal government overhauled its regulation for power reliability, ultimately deputizing the nonprofit North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, to create and enforce reliability standards to which all utility providers must adhere. Utilities face daily fines for violation of the standards, which can range from $1,000, for a small violation in a small market, to $1 million, for a big violation in a big market.
The city’s electric load growth rate has dipped from 2 percent annually, its historical average, to 1.25 percent, which has provided a little flexibility in Columbia’s grid. Water and Light is still anxious to get the new substation and transmission lines built. MU is requesting a 20-megawatt boost in its non-firm energy capacity in 2021, which may be impossibly taxing on the system without resolving the issues on the south side of town.
Several citizens, Nauser included, have wondered if an increased electric load will even be necessary by 2021. Energy efficient homes have come a long way since 2007, and net-zero homes, which are efficient to the point of taking zero power off the grid, are being built throughout the country now.
The problem, Connie Kacprowicz says, is that for these technologies to lower the grid’s required capability, they would have to work best during peak utility hours, which they don’t. Solar power production tends to dwindle between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. in the summer, coinciding with Water and Light’s most demanding hours. And because solar is, for the time being, an intermittent resource, it doesn’t count toward the city’s NERC requirements. Besides, older homes, including some in the fifth ward, are often impossible to upgrade to net-zero status without significant investment by the homeowner.
“Could solar help us down the road? We certainly hope so,” Kacprowicz says. “But the technology isn’t quite there yet.”
In south Columbia, Water and Light has been able to avoid NERC violations by rerouting some of the town’s energy, but the system is still overloaded. For a substation with two transformers, the department’s loading design goals are that the substation operates at 50 percent capacity (66.6 percent for a three-transformer substation). Perche Creek, a two-transformer substation, operated at 72 percent capacity in 2015; Grindstone and Hinkson substations, three-transformer substations in or near south Columbia, operated at 48 and 64 percent, respectively.
“Without doing anything, we’ll run into problems in the 2020 timeframe,” Kacprowicz says. “There are some big decisions that council needs to make.”
The big decision council will make is whether to continue moving forward with Option A or switch plans and move to Option B or Option E, a potential route, running down from a non-Columbia substation north of the city, proposed by new mayor Brian Treece. In January, after Nauser had reopened discussion on the transmission line project, council paused the project to examine some lingering community concerns, including the possible health effects of power lines and their impact on property values. Nauser says she was acting on behalf of a number of impassioned constituents who felt misled in the original discussion; in the 2013 council meeting, in which Nauser was one of two council members to vote against Option A, she said she felt there had always been a public expectation that some undergrounding could be done. But Nauser also wants to explore other non-transmission line options, like energy efficiency programs. In the January meeting, Nauser found the council support for these thoughts that she didn’t have in 2013.
A lot of money hangs in the balance. “You can’t move back and forth in the process without costing time and money,” Kacprowicz says. The city has already spent $3.5 million on the design phase of Option A; if the council votes to switch to another option, $3 million will be lost. Additionally, two to three years will be added to the project’s timeline, putting the best-case scenario completion date in 2019. Option B also doesn’t address the loading issues faced in the rest of the city’s 69-kilovolt system, which would have to be addressed in a separate project at an unspecified time.
The department is also worried about second contingency issues — events that could compromise the system if they happen at the same time as another event. Option B has more than four times the second contingencies of Option A.
All these factors led Columbians for Responsible Government to start their petition to recall Nauser. Taylor Burks, a fifth ward resident and co-founder of the PAC, hand delivered the petition to city hall.
Burks is a Navy veteran, and he looks the part: tall, trim, confident. It turned out that about 15 percent of the signatures collected on the petition weren’t from registered fifth ward voters, and the petition fell short of the number needed for a recall election. Burks isn’t terribly discouraged, though; the recall wasn’t exactly the point.
“You can’t act with integrity if you set up a process and then throw that process out when it doesn’t fit your own political narrative,” Burks says, “which I think is what council has done over the past couple of years.”
The recall was as much about making a public statement of frustration as it was about filling a council seat. In April 2015, voters approved a $63.1 million bond issue that was meant, in large part, to pay for the council-approved transmission route, which was Option A. The bond language allowed for changes to the route to be made, but Burks sees any switch as disingenuous.
“People think that it’s settled, they think that the city is going to sort of stand by the process that was in place,” Burks says. “And then to overturn the years of work and give false reassurances to people that the process is settled when it’s not, I think that’s where a lot of the anger stems from. People trusted what the process was, and it’s no longer what’s going to go through.”
Nauser says that council will approve a plan, by summer or fall. The project has dragged on longer than anyone wanted it to. She says, “I remember, in my first term, having conversations like, ‘Why are we not starting this process now? Why is this going to take so long if we know that we’re going to need it?’”
People have been jittery about living near power lines since the late ’70s, when a study was published noting a correlation between families living near power lines in Denver and a higher rate of childhood cancer. After a few decades of research, the science is murky. Nobody has been able to establish a mechanism by which the electromagnetic fields, or EMF, given off by power lines can have any adverse health effects. Even finding a correlation is difficult, because EMFs surround us virtually 100 percent of the time — through our cell phones, televisions, appliances, computers, and anything else electric.
Still, a number of epidemiological studies support a small increased risk of leukemia in children living near high-voltage power lines. The International Agency for Research on Cancer studied electric and magnetic fields separately and found “limited evidence” of magnetic fields causing childhood leukemia and “inadequate evidence” for all other cancers, in children and adults, from electric and magnetic fields. And the correlation between EMFs and power lines is probably more overblown than the original study suggested — the American Cancer Society, in a report on EMFs, says “although being directly under a power line exposes you to its highest strength field, it is often in the range of what you could be exposed to when using certain household appliances.”
EMFs’ biggest impact may not be on health, but on home values. A number of papers have been written about how to appraise homes near power lines, but it’s hard to draw a consistent conclusion — most of them say that it depends on the community. The more a community fears power lines, the more impact they’ll have on a home’s value.
The transmission project is closing in on a decade of work now, and there are still no 80-foot high, 8-foot circumference steel poles lining Nifong and Scott Boulevard. The project has gathered nine years of political momentum — in a presentation prepared by Water and Light for the city council, one slide includes that “The project has been subject to City Council review FOURTEEN times.” Now it’s closer to 20.
The transmission line project has become an emotional issue for all involved, but not necessarily for the same reasons.
“Aside from health impacts and property values, a big third question becomes, ‘Why is the city incapable of planning for infrastructure in an appropriate timeframe?’” Burks says.
Kacprowicz says that, thankfully, there have been a string of cool summers the past few years, which has helped keep southwest Columbia from violating regulations. The city is hoping for another this year.