POWER STRUGGLE County denies Vermillion permission
to construct new power lines; city responds
by initiating court action By David Lias
Plain Talk Vermillion city leaders want to link the community to a new power source â�?�? the electricity generated at the Spirit Mound substation north of town. To do that, the city proposed this spring to construct its own looped 115 kilovolt (kV) power line from the Spirit Mound station south to Vermillion, with lines leading back north from the city limits to the Spirit Mound power source. For that to occur, however, the city needed permission from the Clay County Commission to place power poles for the new transmission lines along the right of way of several county roads. Commissioners, after hearing from both city officials and people who live in the vicinity of where the proposed line would be located, decided to deny the cityâ�?�?s request. Thatâ�?�?s prompted the city to seek court action. Ultimately, it appears, the decision of whether the new line will be allowed to be constructed will be up to a circuit court judge. No date has yet been set for the court hearing. City Manager John Prescott said back in July, 2006, the Vermillion City Council adopted a resolution directing staff to move forward on construction of the transmission line from the Spirit Mound substation to the community. â�?�?We had looked at East River â�?�? which currently wields our power â�?�? we had looked at what their terms were going to be going forward when their contract expires at the end of 2010 â�?�? the council looked at those numbers and decided that long term for the community, it makes sense to construct our electric transmission line,â�? Prescott said. Nearly 50 people, most of them rural Clay County residents, disagree with that assessment, however. The new power line, they pointed out, would have no benefit to them as rural residents are already receiving electricity from the reliable Clay-Union Electric Cooperative. The city line, however, could prove to be detrimental in many ways. The 115 kV line would have to be strung on poles that are 70 feet high. The poles would be placed in the right of way of somewhat narrow county roads, meaning they likely would be situated in the very center of ditches along the roads. They also note that East River Electric, upon learning that the city was concerned about the upcoming end of a contract that provides power to Vermillion at a reasonable rate, offered to extend its transmission service agreement to Vermillion twice. The Plain Talk obtained correspondence between the city and East River Electric. In August, 2006, Prescott wrote East River following two meetings with electric cooperative executives and city staff. Prescott wrote, â�?�?At this time, the Vermillion City Council and staff concur that the best long-term position for the community is to not pursue another agreement with East River Power Cooperative.â�? Prescott noted in his letter that Vermillion was seeking to construct a city-owned transmission line â�?�?not because of poor service, unereliability or an inability to meet our future needs. The difference for the city is that constructing our own transmission line is more economical for the community during the next 20 years and beyond.â�? Last April, East River made one more attempt to keep Vermillion as a customer. It offered to extend its transmission service agreement to the city on the same terms it offered the city in May 2006, with these key provisions: â�?¢ Term from Jan. 1, 2011 to Dec. 31, 2030. â�?¢ Standard transmission service charge of $2/kW a month, guaranteed through 2017. â�?¢ An aid to construction credit of $7,750 per month for a total credit of $1,86 million through Dec. 31, 2030, in recognition of the payment of $1.45 million made by the city to East River in 1980. Jim Edwards, assistant general manager-operations at East River Electric, noted in his letter to the city that the cooperativeâ�?�?s transmission network presently serving the city has capacity for future city load growth, multiple transmission circuits from three geographically separated high voltage delivery substations, remote monitoring, remote transmission line switching and a 24-hour dispatch center plus the manpower, equipment and material to rapidly repair or correct problems. Critics of the cityâ�?�?s intentions note that virtually none of that exists in Vermillionâ�?�?s plan. Curt Johnson, a Vermillion resident whose parentsâ�?�? farm would be directly affected by the power lines, notes that the city would affectly be reducing the number of transmission circuits serving it from three to one. That lack of redundancy, he said, means the city easily could lose power in the event of severe weather, such as an ice storm. He also questions how Vermillion plans to maintain its proposed new lines after they are built. Presently, the city owns no equipment that can make needed repairs to lines strung on a 70-foot pole, he said. Edwards noted in his letter that East River has provided very reliable electric service to the city for decades, with only five unplanned outages with a combined total of 25 minutes of outage time. â�?�?We believe that moving away from multiple transmission circuits and multiple high voltage delivery substations to two transmission lines from the same high delivery substation is a significant reduction in electric delivery reliability at a time when service reliability is becoming increasingly more critical.â�? Alderman Jack Powell said economics is behind the cityâ�?�?s desire to construct its own power lines. â�?�?Twenty-eight years ago, the city put $1.45 million into the Rasmussen substation,â�? he said. This substation is located near the junction of Highway 50 and Interstate 29. â�?�?The city was then given a special deal for the duration of its contract (with East River) up to 2010,â�? he said. As part of that agreement, the city provided maintenance on the substation. In return, electric charges were not based on local growth but on operations and maintenance (of the substation),â�? Jack Powell said. â�?�?It was not a per kilowatt charge.â�? Beginning in 2011, the city of Vermillion would be put on the same footing as other East River customers. In other words, Jack Powell said, electric rates would go up. He added that the current electric lines serving Vermillion typically experience a â�?�?7 percent line loss, and we pay that line loss whether its actual or not. We pay that to East River.â�? Jack Powell said the increase from East River likely would total approximately $175,000 annually. The city could use that funding to construct its own electric line by issuing bonds that would be paid for in 25 years or less, he said. That would help Vermillion avoid paying certain charges to East River. â�?�?With East River, you pay them a wielding charge to wield that power from WAPA to Vermillion,â�? Jack Powell said. â�?�?If you own your own line, you pay for maintenance only.â�? Prescott noted that the city-owned system wouldnâ�?�?t guarantee cheaper electricity. â�?�?Our rates will go up with either scenario,â�? he said. â�?�?Because of the drought, we wonâ�?�?t be able to get as much power from WAPA.â�? â�?�?The key thing is convincing our community that this is an economic issue,â�? Jack Powell said. Itâ�?�?s much like making an investment and purchasing something rather than renting it, he said. â�?�?Do we pay for something and own it in the end or do we continue on renting?â�? he said. Nearly 50 people reportedly voiced strong opinions at the county commission meeting earlier this spring when the city electric line was being discussed. â�?�?The people didnâ�?�?t want the line, the line was a duplication of service, and the poles were going to be five feet out in the public right of way (of county roads) and the right of way is only 33 feet to the center of the road,â�? Clay County Commission Chairman Leo Powell said. â�?�?If they put those big poles out there, it wouldnâ�?�?t be safe.â�? Leo Powell added that the city was planning to string the high voltage lines right past peopleâ�?�?s houses in some instances. â�?�?They had never talked with anyone about doing it,â�? he said. â�?�?People were extremely vocal, and the commissioners tried to listen to the people who were being impacted. â�?�?The city made no effort really to notify anyone,â�? Leo Powell said. Philip and Elaine Johnson, whose farm is near the Spirit Mound substation, learned of the cityâ�?�?s plan when they were visited one day by a man who said the trees in a portion of their windbreak would have to be cut down to make room for the transmission line. Leo Powell, who is employed by Clay-Union Electric, abstained from participating in the meeting involving the power line to eliminate any possible of impropriety on the countyâ�?�?s part, even though Clay-Union Electric has no interest in the proposed line. He noted that he is knowlegeable about the electrical delivery system in the state, particularly in southeast South Dakota. â�?�?I, for the life of me, canâ�?�?t understand why they want to do this,â�? Leo Powell said of the cityâ�?�?s proposal. â�?�?There is no payback to this, and it takes the city from having three alternate sources of power to having just one radial feed with a loop in that radial feed.â�? The city of Beresford receives its electricity from a system with a similar design. â�?�?The city of Beresford sat seven days one time without power,â�? Leo Powell said, â�?�?because they only had one source. Iâ�?�?d hate to see Vermillion in that same boat.â�? Rural Clay County citizens whose homes are located near the proposed city line are sincerely worried about possible negative effects. One woman said she is concerned about the electro-magnetic field (EMF) from the line, and the possibility that exposure to EMF may cause cancer. â�?�?There were an awful lot of people who had questions; if the city had had some public hearings or contacted the landowners and asked them to come in prior to doing this,â�? Leo Powell said, â�?�?it certainly would have helped, but they didnâ�?�?t want to give out any information.â�? City officials seemed hesitant to offer much information, he said, and that only served to anger affected homeowners and farmers. Leo Powell said a date hasnâ�?�?t been set yet for the court hearing. County commissioners, he said, likely will be asked to testify, he said, and state the basis for not granting the needed right of ways to the city for the power line. In the meantime, it appears the city has burned its bridge with East River Electric. The city never responded to East Riverâ�?�?s April 2008 offer to extend its services for another 20 years. In turn, East River has notified Vermillion it intends to terminate its transmission service agreement effective Dec. 31, 2010.