Contrasting views spark momentum for Tuesdayâ�?�?s referendum By David Lias
Plain Talk The notion of building an electric line, especially in the era of REA, the internet and cell phones, would seem, on its face, to be something rather easy to accept as a part of progress. Nothing, it appears, could be further from the truth in Vermillion, however. The city's attempt to build approximately 20 total miles of a looped 115 kV power line from the Spirit Mound substation to the existing substation at the Municipal Service Center located at W. Duke Street has drawn strong support from city administrators. It has raised the ire of county residents, however. Last November, a number of Vermillion citizens, with the help of county residents who live outside the city's jurisdiction, collected enough signatures from city residents to refer the issue to a public vote. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Jan. 20 at the National Guard Armory in Vermillion. The city plans to construct approximately 20 total miles of a looped 115 kV power line from the Spirit Mound substation to the existing substation at the Municipal Service Center located at W. Duke Street. The lines will be erected approximately 60 feet above the ground on wooden power poles. The poles will be placed in the right-of-ways of county roads and Highway 19. Placing the poles along county roads created controversy last summer. Citizens residing near the proposed lines' route listed a number of concerns – from traffic safety and the possible negative affect the lines could have on one's health, to the detrimental affect the lines would have on scenery and windbreaks in cases where trees would have to be trimmed. The negative feedback received at a Clay County Commission hearing compelled its members to refuse granting the use of the county road right-of-ways for the transmission line. That lead to a day-long face-off between the city and the county in a civil hearing brought heard by Circuit Judge Steven Jensen last summer. Jensen eventually decided that Vermillion should be allowed to place the power lines in the right-of-ways of Clay County roads. The center of the poles, he ordered, would be placed two feet from the public highway right-of-way so that they don't enter adjacent real property. The judge's decision included other factors designed to alleviate, as much as possible, any hardship on private property owners. He ordered that power poles be placed in such a way to avoid or reduce tree trimming in shelterbelts as much as possible. The city also must place the power line poles from 230 feet to 300 feet apart, Jensen ordered, to minimize their view from residence dwelling structures. The judge's stipulations weren't enough, however, to stop opposition to this project. "This is an issue that has been studied by the city council, city staff and consultants for several years," Alderman Howard Willson said at a recent city council meeting, "to find out that is going to be much more economical for us to own our own power line than it is for us to rent from a third party to bring the power in to the city from Spirit Mound. The city, he said, can save from $30 million to $37 million over 30 years in transmission costs by owning its own power line. Those figures don't include the actual cost of the electric power. The city will pass those savings on to its customers, Willson said. He noted that Sanford Vermillion Hospital would save approximately $25,000 annually. The Vermillion School District will save $16,500. Homeowners will likely save anywhere from $75 to $100 per year in electric utility costs. "I think it's important for every one of us to vote, because this is going to affect our pocketbooks, and our children's pocketbooks for years to come," Willson said. Curt Johnson lives in Vermillion, but has been one of the leading opponents of the city's efforts. He testified against the construction of the power line during last summer's civil hearing in at the Clay County Courthouse. He believes the city is likely underestimating the interest rate it will have to pay on the bond issue if it is approved. He also believes Vermillion's population growth and power use don't justify the construction of a new 115 kV line. Vermillion currently has a WAPA (Western Area Power Administration) allocation from the Missouri River dam system. The WAPA allotment is fixed and currently meets about 65 percent of the city's electrical needs. The balance of the electricity used by Vermillion Light & Power customers is purchased from MRES. MRES owns wind, coal and natural gas powered electrical generating facilities. The city pays costs associated with generating both WAPA and MRES power. A transmission system is needed to get the power to the city's substation for distribution to electrical customers. Currently, East River Power Cooperative is wheeling power to the Municipal Service Center substation. The term wheeling is used for costs associated with transporting power from the source to the city's substation. Wheeling charges do not cover the cost of generating or purchasing electricity for use by Vermillion Light & Power customers. The city made a $1.4 million payment for East River system improvements in 1981. In exchange for this payment, the city currently only makes an annual operating and maintenance payment of $56,000 to East River for wheeling. The agreement expires on Dec. 31, 2010. The city negotiated with East River in 2006 to continue the wheeling arrangement. East River proposed to move away from an operations and maintenance payment to the billing system that all other non-member entities experience. In this situation, wheeling charges are determined on a per kilowatt basis. The final proposal submitted by East River included a $2.00 per kilowatt charge for wheeling services. In 2007, the city utilized 145,840 kilowatts per year. In 1997, the city utilized 112,657 kilowatts per year. In 2017, the city anticipates using 159,800 kilowatts per year. As electrical usage increases, so does the amount to be paid to East River with the proposed wheeling arrangement. The $2.00 per kW charge would only have been guaranteed until 2017. The East River per kW wheeling charge is revised every five years. Johnson wishes the city would have presented East River's numbers instead of its own when predicting future kilowatt use and wheeling charges. "This was done by Missouri River Energy Services," he said. "They're basically making assumptions on East River's behalf, and they have no idea what their rate schedule is going to be." The city council and administration have noted in the past that the new line will alleviate a current 7 percent line loss payment it must bear because of inefficiencies in the current system. If Vermillion were to use 150,000 kW of electricity in a year, the city would be responsible for the generating cost of 160,500 kW of electricity and paying the $2 wheeling charge on 160,500 kWs of electricity. The city currently receives power via an East River owned 69 kV transmission line. With a 69kV transmission line, the actual line losses are approximately 3 percent. The balance of the power purchased and added to the electrical grid by Vermillion through the 7 percent line loss payment is available for East River distribution customers to use. In recognition of Vermillion's 1981 facility payment, East River would provide an annual $93,000 credit on the wheeling bill through 2031. This would be the final credit given for the 1981 payment. After 2031, the city would not receive any credit for the 1981 system investment and wheeling costs would be solely on a per kW basis. As the exact electrical consumption in 2011 is unknown, the estimated wheeling cost in 2011 including additional line losses was estimated to be $304,000 if Vermillion would have stayed with East River Power Cooperative vs. the current $56,000 annual payment. In 2021, the estimated wheeling cost is estimated to be $518,000. "I think this is the only way we can go to save our citizens money," Alderman Mary Edelen said, voicing her support for the power line's construction. "It is going to be very expensive if this issue does not pass, and people are going to be paying for it. "I know there are questions about redundancy, but we don't have a redundant line now," she said. "There are concerns it will be close to Spirit Mound, but actually it's going to be about a mile away from Spirit Mound." Johnson believes those questions of redundancy are a compelling reason to not support the line. "They (the city) like to call it a looped feed, but the trouble is where it originates from," he said. "Right now, Vermillion can be served from three substations, and we actually have been on all three in the last year." East River has the capability to close switches on its substations from its headquarters in Madison," Johnson said. "If it's getting out of control, they can switch it out, get the power to a different substation, get that substation energized and we can check on it the next day." With the new power line, he said, Vermillion would be walking away from a network of transmission lines that East River currently has in place, and two other power sources. The Spirit Mound peaking plant was built to be a load-shaving station. "It was never designed to be a backup generator for every little glitch we may have mechanically or weather-related," Johnson said. He added that the city's design for the new power line isn't a true looped system. "We don't have a separate line from a separate power source."