B.I. Utility District celebrates a successful year

Fri, 09/02/2022 - 1:45pm

Perhaps not the swankiest thing to do on a hot summer Saturday afternoon but with the enticement of ice cream, swag, and a talk by Nobel Prize winner Michael Oppenheimer, the Block Island Utility District’s Annual meeting on Saturday was well attended, with every seat under the tent occupied.
The occasion marked the fourth anniversary of the power company’s transformation from a privately held investor-led entity to a not-for-profit operating under a cooperative model, although it stills does business under
the familiar Block Island Power Company name.
The meeting included all the usual agenda items that go along with an annual meeting, with updates on the accomplishments over the past year – of which there were quite a few, and nerdy things like debt equity ratios
and audit reports.
The public input section of the meeting revealed that there is still a lot of confusion, if not outright misunderstanding of the new net metering tariff, which was approved by the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission earlier this year after the Utility District had legislation successfully pass through the state legislature. That legislation allowed the utility to exceed the three-percent of peak cap on net metering, or customer generated power, that was set for all utilities in Rhode Island by state law.
Block Island had already met that three percent cap and there was a waiting list for people that wanted to tie in their solar systems to the island grid. But those people are credited differently, and under less favorable
conditions than the older customers and some are not happy about it.
After listening to some of the comments, which were limited to two minutes each, ratepayer David Lewis got up and said it was impossible for anyone to make a rational point about the subject in two minutes, but that he had been attending all of the meetings on the subject and wanted the people to know that the “board has taken care to keep the ratepayers’ interest at heart.” He added that the second type of tariff had added a “new layer of discussion. There’s more to this that everyone needs to get educated on.”
Chair of the Utility District Board of Commissioners, Barbara MacMullan, reminded people that the subject of net metering had been, and would continue to be on the commissioners’ monthly meeting agendas. And BIPCo President Jeffery Wright, after thanking everyone for their input said, during his report later on: “I welcome the criticisms and the feedback. The important thing is you get involved.” Net metering,” he said, “is going to be a hot topic for a long time. We raised the cap to get as much power as we can get. We want solar, but it has to be at the right price.”
The successes over the past year and more, are due to many people. MacMullan and Wright both thanked the Block Island Solar Initiative for their past donation of solar arrays for the electric plant’s roof and their more recent donation of funds for exploring utility-scale battery storage systems, and a new electric bucket truck that costs over $600,000 and will be only about the tenth one in the country. (It’s expected to be delivered next March.)
The Utility District has also just recently concluded renovations in the basement area of the office building to create an apartment for employee housing, and gotten the approval of the PUC for a $1.4 million loan to purchase a condominium for executive employee housing. Although rent will cover some of these additions, the Utility District is able to undertake the loan obligations without any effect on rates.
Part of that is due to another large project, the voltage conversion, which at a cost of $1.5 million, has led to cost savings that stem from a significant reduction in line losses.
BIUD Treasurer Tom Risom said that the utility could even take on an additional $2 million of debt without affecting rates.
Wright made sure to recognize the employees of the company. “These are the folks who are running to get your lights back on” when there’s an outage. He started by recognizing Dave Milner who retired in April after exactly 50 years with the power company. “To stay 50 years means a lot,” said Wright.
There have been some promotions and shifting in duties. Tom Durden in now the operations manager after 15 years with the company, and “Jim Stockman will transition to what Dave used to do,” which includes running
the engines.
“Tracy Fredericks takes care of everything in the office,” said Wright, and Evan Carey is “now our lead lineman. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
There is one new employee, Tom Brown, who has completed “lineman’s school,” and who will be occupying the new apartment along with his fiancé.
Wright also wanted to thank the commissioners. “Without these folks here, you wouldn’t have what you have,” he said. “I think we all owe them a special thank you.”
When it was finally time for guest speaker Michael Oppenheimer to take the podium, he said: “I’ll be quick...I want to get my last swim of the day in.”
The subject of Oppenheimer’s talk was “Power supply’s impact on climate change.”
Electricity, he said, contributes 20 to 30 percent of global warming, and in the current efforts to combat climate change, “Ukraine is throwing sand into it.”
Another significant problem currently is the problem of methane, which is linked to the production of natural gas. “We have been unable to get the leaks under control,” said Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer said that what many years ago he thought might happen with energy didn’t exactly turn out to be what happened, and that was mainly because of pricing. Still, he said he was optimistic. Things that were thought to be successful weren’t, and vice versa. For instance, solar and wind have become relatively inexpensive. “I thought it would be hydrogen. Turns out the price has not come down on that,” he said. “Another possible solution is trapping carbon dioxide [and storing it]. That price also hasn’t come down.”
The price of nuclear energy has also remained high, he said. “The reason that electrification is talked about is because of the price of other [technologies] that haven’t come down.” He added that everything should be electric, but it was necessary to have a better, more efficient electric grid that relies on renewable energy rather than on fossil fuels.
But, there has to be buy-in, and Oppenheimer said that the Inflation Reduction Act had addressed the grid, but that part was eliminated. “Texas wouldn’t want the Feds to come in,” he said. “It’s a concern that needs to be dealt with.”
As for electrification of the transportation industry, that is a different matter and being led by the industry itself, not the government. “The car industry is dead serious about becoming all electric.” As far as former President Trump deregulating various environmental initiatives, “it didn’t matter, because the industry was already doing it.”
Why? “China threatened to take over the [automotive] industry by spitting out electric cars,” which spurred the U.S. auto industry into action, said Oppenheimer.
After Oppenheimer concluded, it was time for questions and one was on battery energy storage and the inherent problems of rare and dangerous chemicals that are used in them.
“They haven’t got a good recycling system,” said Oppenheimer, adding that it was a problem that needed to be solved, but there “are developments every day.”