Low member turnout at Orcas Power and Light Cooperative’s four-island listening sessions led board members to assume everyone is happy with their electric service. OPALCO hosted four listening sessions over three days, concluding with one in its Eastsound headquarters on Wednesday, Nov. 14.
“One of the drivers of initiating the town hall meeting was to have a conversation leading up to our budget discussion. That’s a real important factor,” General Manager Foster Hildreth said. “We always try to keep our rates as low as possible, and every year we go through a whole board analysis.”
Fewer than five members attended the Orcas meeting with approximately seven at Shaw Island’s, six at Lopez’s and three at San Juan’s.
The discussion began with Hildreth explaining that the board would discuss the budget for 2019 during its Thursday morning meeting. This would include a proposed 5.2 percent increase in member rates averaging $10 to $13 a month. The reasoning behind the increase, Hildreth explained, includes the installation of the fiber cord between Lopez and San Juan islands.
“It was a $15 million submarine cable that we completed last year,” Hildreth said. “That’s a primary driver of why we have the revenue increase.”
Hildreth added that members can contact OPALCO to get an estimate of how much their bill will increase next year based on their usage habits from this year.
“If you have any interest in having us run those, come on in and we’ll run them for you,” Hildreth said. “That gives a good sense for what individuals can expect from our 5.2 percent revenue increase that we’re proposing.”
Another significant influence in the co-op’s raising rates has been the warming weather trends of the past few years.
“When it’s really cold, we turn on our electric heat in the winter time to heat our homes, and that generates the kilowatt-hour we use to pay our bills. If we end up in a warming trend like we’re starting to transition into that cycle, then we don’t sell as many kilowatt-hours because it’s not as cold,” Hildreth explained, adding that due to there being fewer kilowatts used, the co-op has to raise prices to compensate. “It’s kind of a dilemma we have based on our rate structure. … This has been the warmest, prettiest, nicest October I’ve ever seen. It’s been nice and warm. Unfortunately, we’re not selling the kilowatt hours we budgeted along the way.”
Hildreth spoke about the Project PAL and Energy Assist Program that OPALCO provides for low-income members. Both programs have proven to be successful, he explained, and are gradually growing as members learn of their availability.
Other ways that members can help to lower their energy costs is to purchase electric vehicles – gasoline prices on the island are higher than electricity prices – and take advantage of an upcoming program OPALCO will be offering soon.
“The shifts you can take to electrify your home can save thousands of dollars over a course of a year,” Hildreth said. “It really helps, not only with low income, but it really helps with the whole community.”
The program Hildreth mentioned is the replacement of antiquated and expensive heating systems with electric ductless heat pumps. He said members can save about $1,000 annually by switching from propane to electric heat systems. Additionally, OPALCO received a $5.8 million grant from the department of agriculture to subsidize the cost of installation.
“Please spread the word because it’s going to be a good program,” Hildreth said.
In July, OPALCO completed its first community solar project on Decatur Island. For $150 per unit, members were able to buy “a panel” at the facility. Thanks to a grant from Bonneville Power Administration – OPALCO’s power provider – every member who purchased a unit will be reimbursed $24 per unit.
“[It’s] pretty substantial,” Hildreth said. “So the return on investment for our community solar project really just improved immensely.”
With the cost of electricity from BPA’s hydropower increasing, solar power is becoming a more cost-effective means of production. However, Hildreth said that it would take 25 more projects of the same size, or 320 acres, to produce 20 percent of the islands’ electricity need. He added that he hopes to be able to harness the power of the tides by 2030, but we’ll always need to depend on energy supplied by BPA.
“We expect to always need our Bonneville Power system and always will, but it would be nice to mix in some renewables because [the money] it will save us pretty substantially over time in future years on our rates,” Hildreth said. “We always need to embrace our extension cord to the mainland to get that federal hydropower because even when we invest pretty heavily in the tidal, we still need to have that backup resource in the federal hydro system – in case the tides aren’t moving, or the wind’s not blowing, or the sun’s not shining. It’s always going to be a good resource for us in the future.”
“Our subsidiary is absolutely fantastic. The demand for our service has been through the roof,” Hildreth began.
When OPALCO purchased the internet provider in 2015, there were slow adopters. However, Rock Island ultimately surpassed its competitor in connections in October 2017.
The purchase of Rock Island by OPALCO was done in an attempt to make sure their linemen were able to continually communicate with the office. This was prompted by a 2013 incident wherein a lineman came in contact with electricity and there were communication voids that occurred.
“We got in this because we wanted to make sure our crew was safe,” Hildreth said. “Suffice it to say, we’ve really made some progress in our community. It’s pretty amazing what we’ve been able to deliver.”
Rock Island is trying to provide internet connectivity to every portion of the island, and in areas where fiber is not yet available, many have LTE connectivity options. Hildreth also applauded the partnership with T-Mobile which, with its 36 existing cell towers, has expanded cell coverage in the county.
“It’s been a big win and there’s a no-cash transfer that goes along with that so it’s a great partnership that we have,” he said. “It’s really just math on how well your T-Mobile phone’s going to work in comparison to the other wireless carriers. Embrace that.”
Rock Island’s Alan Smith said that his goal is to eventually move entirely to fiber because there is a pent-up demand and opportunity from members. When OPALCO purchased Rock Island, there were approximately 70 miles of fiber cable owned by the electricity co-op. That number is now more than 450 miles.
Smith said there are a lot of opportunities to get connected to fiber now with up to $1,500 of the cost to connect being waived.
“I’m continually amazed how fast we’ve been able to grow and provide,” said OPALCO board member Rick Christmas. “We have to be able to provide, not only for today and next year but for the next decade. I believe that’s what we’re trying to do is build an infrastructure that’s going to be sustainable for the long-term, and that’s a commitment.”
Board member Jeff Struthers agreed, adding, “We’re building a broadband utility. It’s something that you can count on. You can expect it to have the same kind of reliability that your power company does. That you expect. That is becoming more important and an essential feature of daily life today.”
For more information about OPALCO’s plans for the future, visit opalco.com. To learn more about Rock Island and fiber and LTE internet availability in your area, visit https://rockisland.com.