OPALCO forum introduces candidates to community

There are two open positions on the Orcas Power and Light Cooperative’s Board of Directors and two candidates running for them. OPALCO hosted a forum on March 15 at Odd Fellows Hall, allowing the community to meet with the two candidates.

Richard Christmas and Jeffrey Struthers are both hoping to fill the vacant positions on the board to represent District 2: Orcas, Armitage, Big Double, Blakely, Fawn, Little Double and Obstruction islands. Every OPALCO member is being asked to vote in this election, regardless of what island they live on. Voting begins March 29.

“The key message that we want to get out is that everyone needs to vote, despite the fact that it’s an uncontested election (two candidates running for two open positions),” Suzanne Olson, OPALCO public relations administrator told the Sounder. “If we don’t get a quorum (10 percent of co-op members) of the membership to vote, we’d have to run the election all over again – and that would be very costly for members.”

At the forum, both candidates introduced themselves, providing details about their professional history and why they would make a good OPALCO board member, then they answered 11 questions asked by the audience.

Christmas has been a resident of Orcas since 1998 and is an active participant in the Eastsound visioning process (an Eastsound Planning and Review Committee project that is preparing for the village’s growth). He is the president of Christmas Consulting, a firm that, as he explained, provides support to government and corporate entities.

“Primarily working on internal and external processes. That’s what I know best. … A lot of my background comes from getting the best out of … organizations,” Christmas said. “I think that’s something you can always use in any organization, and hopefully that’s something I can bring to the organization. It’s great today [and] I think it can get even better.”

Other community organizations for which Christmas has served on a governing board include the Boy Scouts of America and the Washington Shotokan Karate.

Struthers’ professional history includes working as an Air Force engineering officer, earning an MBA, working both as a nonpartisan professional for three former presidents and as a renewable energy analyst helping to craft national solar legislation. He commended the cooperative’s ethics.

“It’s not, ‘Do it quick and dirty and hope it’ll work,’ and it’s not, ‘Do it just when it’s convenient to get it done.’ Rather it’s, ‘Make sure you get it done and make it work for the long-haul,’” said Struthers. “Many years ago, I [forwent] my interest in energy, and now I’m back. … Things are changing in the world. … All the while we must remain fiscally sound and ready to deal with the unexpected, so I expect some exciting times ahead.”

Struthers said he understands the principles of small business: focus; persistence; daily, practical problem-solving; and cash management. He also said he values community, having served six years on the county Parks and Recreation Commission as well as five years as treasurer for the Orcas Animal Protection Society.

The candidates were asked what their thoughts were on how OPALCO can encourage more member involvement.

“It’s a campaign. It’s making sure that the members understand that there’s a responsibility to be a member, not just a consumer. When you have that, people find value with it,” Christmas said. “It’s not built with one brochure or one lunch.”

Christmas noted that there are members of the co-op who are intelligent and that not utilizing that intellectual resource is a tragedy. He added that he believes there should be focused forums to get “younger, tech-oriented” members more involved in the co-op.

“You get some of the leaders in making it work, and they provide a demonstration by which others can follow,” Struthers said. “There are heroes in this business, but they don’t sit around boardroom tables; they wear hard hats.”

The second question was about what the concept of a cooperative means to them, and whether the candidate believed the acquisition of Rock Island was in accordance with that definition.

“We need [experts] who know our system in order to get it working, to keep it working and to make sure it’s always up to date,” Struthers said. “I think it all works to the benefit to the new technologies that we have and making it all work better for power. And also bringing broadband to the community.”

Christmas said he wrestles with the concept of a cooperative because his experience was with a corporation.

“The way that it appears that Rock Island has done, it’s a build-as-you-go environment. … We’ve already had the infrastructure established. This is not built out like many of the other internet [organizations],” Christmas said. “The better revenue we have, the less we’re going to ultimately have in increased cost.”

Affordability of power was a concern relayed in the third question of the forum.

“When I look around the room, and I look around the islands, there’s a lot of people on fixed incomes. And every time there’s [an] additional $20 charge that goes onto the bill, we feel it.” Christmas said. “Twenty dollars to a lot of people means a lot of money, including me. And we’ve got to be very [aware of] that.”

Christmas said that the OPALCO board should always be looking at rate reviews and taking into account the consumer price index when setting rates for its members. Struthers said that the community should expect to pay reasonable prices for a stable and reliable power supply.

“Yes, I certainly feel the need to be careful with every dollar. Being small-business oriented – boy, cash is king,” Struthers said, adding that you can’t pretend you can get something without paying for it. “This is a core service. We all depend on it.”

The fourth question posed to the candidates was: How can OPALCO be considered a complex network compared to the larger networks that are seen on the mainland.

“We’re pretty desperate when it comes to having everything from Lopez, Orcas and Shaw – and along with 20 other islands – to make sure we’re able to produce and stabilize that kind of power grid,” Christmas said. “I hope that it would be not as expensive, and, ultimately, you would hope that it would be less complex, but it’s still complicated to be able to put that much wire over this many separate islands.”

Struthers noted the complexity of having a power grid on an island is more difficult to maintain because you can’t always just drive to where the problem is to fix it. He said that the expectation of modern conveniences “on these rocks” is unrealistic.

“I think the complexity works for us. The expense, the investments we’ve made, means we can grow and accommodate more people … and not be back in an earlier time,” Struthers said. “I think there is complexity, and I certainly think there’s a much higher cost per unit of almost any measure.”

A follow-up to the previous one, the next question asked the candidates what challenges they foresee OPALCO having solving any accessibility problems.

“We’ve all become more efficient users of energy – especially electricity,” Struthers said. “The pressure continue for us to use it ever more efficiently.”

Struthers said that the energy usage is not linear throughout the year, noting that it peaks “very sharply” in the winter. He said anything to reduce that peak will save money for members and the co-op.

“It’s a flat revenue world for this particular industry, and we have to be continually looking for other opportunities to generate revenue,” Christmas said. “I think that was one of the foresights that went along with Rock Island. … The co-op is [this] idea to serve all the membership. … Ultimately that’s what we’re all here to do, is be part of a coop.”

Referencing an earlier question wherein the candidates answered how Rock Island fits into the cooperative’s purpose, another question asked whether the candidates supported OPALCO’s internet-providing subsidiary.

“If you want to manage a modern utility, you have to be able to monitor and control all of your remote equipment … [and] to do that you need to have some broadband capability,” Struthers said. “Now, when you do that, you know you’ve got a lot of pretty good-size[d] investment, and if you can make more money from that investment by having other people use it, that’s a very good thing.”

Struthers said that broadband starts with a fiber backbone, and that to make full-use of power, you need a network to support it.

Christmas said he has taken into consideration the medical and educational centers on the island that require faster internet speeds than they were receiving prior to Rock Island.

“I think it’s a good investment for you, and for me and our children. … How can we generate the best value for everyone,” Christmas said. “This is one of those opportunities that, I think, we should continue to endeavor in. … It looks like the right answer to me, and I would support it.”

OPALCO’s cost effectiveness was the basis for the next question.

“Cost-effective, to me, doesn’t mean cheapest. Cost-effective, to me, means best value for what’s available,” Christmas said. He continued saying that 10 years ago OPALCO had the same amount of employees it has today, and, though technology has advanced – and the world has changed “quite a bit” – they’ve retained 51 employees.

“We have to deliver a utility-quality service, a reliable service,” Struthers said. “If the entire community depends on having the lights go on … it isn’t going to be, probably, the cheapest thing you can do. It’s got to be one that you can count on for years.”

The candidates were then asked what excites them most about being on the OPALCO board.

“I love the co-op model. … I like the idea that there’s an ethic about this,” Struthers said.

“I like the idea that it’s a not-for-profit but it’s a not-for-profit business. It’s focused. … You put that combination together and it’s a winning combination.”

Christmas said he had an epiphany during the last power outage that stirred the excitement within him.

“I don’t know why but I knew this for sure: the linemen were going to be working on it, the office people were going to be worrying about it, the engineers were going to be worried about it. That gave me some real peace of mind,” Christmas said. “If these people can be that committed to something that is really our lifeline to everything we do. I want to be a part of that.”

Olson put on her “member hat” to ask the candidates what their role with the members of the co-op will be.

“I don’t want this to be the only time that we’re with the members during my tenure,” Struthers said. “The more we can get out and just be with the members, the better sense we’re going to have on what really they feel is important.”

Christmas said that power is just power, but it’s intelligence that drives the power, and he added that he knows quite a bit about that.

“I think that I can be complementary to the board from that point of view,” Christmas said. “I think that there’s some things I can offer the organization, and I’m excited to be able to present that.”

One of Rock Island’s ongoing projects has been installing fiber cable throughout the county. The second to last question asked the candidates how they feel about that process.

“It’s a push-pull,” Christmas said. “It needs to be smart, it needs to be strategic, it needs to be consistent.”

Christmas said that in order to build a network, careful choices must be made to serve the good of the people and to have a plan, but remain flexible. He added that he’s still waiting for fiber to be installed at his house.

Struthers said that Rock Island has a full schedule when it comes to the fiber installation. They could hire more people, but he doesn’t believe that would be the right thing to do.

“I think the right approach is you’ve got people who are up-to-speed, they got a lot of experience,” Struthers said, adding that he isn’t waiting for fiber to be installed at his house – he already has it. “Over time people get connected. … It worked from day one, and it hasn’t let me down.”

The final question, before closing comments were made, was asked by OPALCO General Manager Foster Hildreth asked what the candidates thought about the co-op’s latest initiative – community solar.

“It’s wildly more practical today than it was all that long time ago,” Struthers said, who reminded everyone he was once a solar energy analyst. “We’ve got that enthusiasm for it in this county.”

Christmas applauded Struthers’ description of the benefits of solar power and added that it’s “just the right thing to do.”

“Even if it wasn’t incredibly efficient, it’s a way – especially here in the San Juan Islands – it’s a way of saying we’re trying to make a difference,” Christmas said. “This is a step forward. It’s a commitment the organization has made, and it’s something that people can get really excited about.”

Christmas added that this is just the start of OPALCO’s ability to provide locally generated, renewable energy. He said, based off what he’s read, that tidal power could produce 85 percent of the co-op’s necessary energy. He added, however, that the technology isn’t there just yet.

Both men gave closing comments before the forum concluded. Struthers reiterated that he is small-business-focused and that he has engineering experience and an MBA.

“I know we have pretty limited upside on revenues going forward, and yet we have an important job to do here in the community,” Struthers said. “My intention is to bring my experiences and background to the party and see if we can just make it all play together and get done what we need to get done.”

Christmas said that Struthers is a gift, and that it’s always good to have people who really want to contribute doing so. Struthers later said he is going to vote for Christmas as well.

“I’m excited about contributing what I can,” Christmas said. “It’s a very exciting prospect, and quite honestly, on the other side, it’s a very exciting prospect if we don’t make things better.”