The Electric Utility Task Group held a community forum on Saturday, October 20, to help determine what options the community should pursue to reduce electricity costs in the absence of a electric transmission cable to the mainland provided by the Deepwater Wind project. The daylong forum drew between 40 and 50 community members, predominately older citizens.
The group included few business owners, whom the EUTG had said it was hoping to attract to the forum. It contained many of the community members who have been vocally opposed to Deepwater Wind’s proposed offshore wind farm three miles off Block Island, and those opposed to a town proposal to use wind energy at the Transfer Station.
The EUTG over the summer debated the best date to hold the meeting to allow business owners and younger working families to attend. They believed that the later date in October would make it easier as the busy summer season would have ended. Town Council member Peter Baute commented on the demographics of the group and urged for a continued discussion with varying interest groups.
“I look around the room and this group is old,” said Baute. “I’d like to see the EUTG take this program around to our town employees and our school teachers and other groups in our community.”
EUTG chair Barbara MacMullan agreed that a wider demographic sample was needed and said that the task group would discuss holding additional sessions with different island groups.
The program itself, which was moderated by the EUTG and the Consensus Building Institute, consisted of two sessions: a morning session that presented six options for reducing electricity costs, and an afternoon session in which small groups reviewed each option based on written comments from the entire group.
The options laid out were: install a stand-alone electricity transmission cable to the mainland; install a municipal wind turbine; install municipal solar arrays; implement electricity conservation and efficiency programs; do a combination of wind, solar and conservation; and finally, purchase the Block Island Power Company and run it as a ratepayer-owned non-profit.
A seventh, do-nothing, option for electricity usage on the island presented the status quo: the island experiences volatile energy costs based on diesel fuel, which has bounced from 12 cents to 38 cents a gallon within the last three years – averaging between 20 cents and 30 cents. This scenario also took into account the fact that the current system relies on technology that pollutes, and carries the risks of transporting diesel fuel.
BIPCo CEO Cliff McGinnes Sr. spoke, saying that to do nothing was not an option. One way or another the island would require a cable, McGinnes said. Without a cable, BIPCo faces large capital costs to meet new emission standards for its generators by 2013, and to remove and replace its underground fuel storage tanks by 2017.
The stand-alone cable as the next option received the most interest from the group present at the forum, but was financially challenging. The cost of a cable was estimated in an HDR study four years ago as $18 million, while Deepwater has estimated it would cost more than $40 million.
The disparity in the estimates is partly explained by a difference in the route the cable would travel. The HDR study proposes the shortest possible route, which would land in Charleston, R.I. Deepwater has said that route is not feasible because of environmental regulations around protected wetlands and marine features. Its cable would take a longer route up Narragansett Bay, costing more to construct.
Island resident Rosemarie Ives said that she did not believe Deepwater’s estimate should be considered. In order to determine the exact cost of a stand-alone cable, task group member Everett Shorey said, the town would need to finance a feasibility study, which the EUTG estimated would cost several hundred thousand dollars.
The annual savings from purchasing power at mainland rates would be between $1 million and $2 million, depending on the price of diesel fuel, according to the EUTG presentation; the annual debt service on a $20 million to $40 million cable would be between $1.2 million and $2.4 million, over a 20 year period. It is unclear how long the undersea cable would last before needing to be replaced.
Several of the participants said they supported the cable, but only if the cost was spread over the entire state. Written comments on the proposal ranged from “We need a cable now!” to “No stand-alone cable, it’s not economically feasible for the island.”
Several commenters stated that the town should move forward with a feasibility study if the cost was reduced.
A municipally owned, land-based wind turbine received largely negative comments – as much as 90 percent, said island resident Bill McKernan, who was part of the afternoon group that reviewed the wind power option. Many of the concerns were based on aesthetics and noise issues.
The EUTG, however, laid out the cost benefits of a wind turbine in its presentation, painting a land turbine as a cost effective option that could be ready to go now, despite the necessity of dumping power during times of high-generation/low-demand if the island does not have a cable that could divert excess electricity to the mainland power grid. According to the EUTG, debt service and maintenance costs would amount to $170,000 per year over nine years, while fuel cost savings would ring in between $350,000 and $450,000 per year.
Several audience members questioned who would see the benefit of those savings. MacMullan said that that hasn’t been determined, but that the town could pass the savings along to the ratepayers or use it to reduce its own electricity costs, which could reduce property taxes.
“I’m sure the town would figure out something to do with that money,” said MacMullan, causing an audience member to respond, “That’s what we are afraid of.”
Solar received support, although the financial case isn’t as solid as for wind. Solar generated power is expensive compared to other options; it costs 18 cents per kWh, more than mainland generated power, and more than wind. It’s even more expensive than BIPCo power during times when diesel fuel costs are low. If using solar, island ratepayers would save between 2 cents and 12 cents per kWh based on the average fuel charge.
There are tax incentives and other programs that can make the financials more attractive. Other advantages include that solar is easy to install incrementally and has fewer aesthetic issues.
Several of the members in attendance suggested that privately owned and distributed solar generation should be promoted. One program that was advocated for was a municipal loan system, similar to one used in Berkley, California, that would allow homeowners to finance a solar array through a town loan with payment through their tax bill.
The town already has several solar arrays connected to town buildings, including a large 12kW array at Town Hall. The savings from that array are viewable on the town’s website, which says that as of Thursday, the array had generated over 180kWh of electricity in the last week. The town is also pursuing a grant to finance several more solar projects at town facilities.
Conservation and efficiency
The town is already pursuing conservation and efficiency improvements at town buildings by using Johnson Controls to perform an energy audit of various town buildings. However, the EUTG said that a large potential for savings remains in commercial buildings.
It could not estimate the total savings available; but one example is that a compact fluorescent bulb uses on average a fifth of the energy that standard incandescent bulbs do.
The audience agreed that efficiency and conservation should be pursued through education, although some members questioned the amount that would be saved and the number of people who would commit to conserving energy.
Other than the cable alone, a combination of wind power, solar generation and conservation gained the most interest from forum participants. However, the concerns over wind turbines disrupting island views were reiterated.
According to the EUTG presentation, the combination of the three technologies work together to produce the best energy savings for the island. MacMullan explained that solar and wind work particularly well together, as wind makes more energy in the winter – while fewer people are on the island – and solar produces more electricity in the summer, when the weather is fairer and the days are longer.
Several of the community members who commented said that while they supported the combination of options, a cable would make it even more attractive.
The EUTG was originally formed to explore the possibility of purchasing BIPCo and running it as a ratepayer owned non-profit. The task force even made an offer of $1.8 million for the company in 2008, which was declined by the owners. At that price it would cost 1 cent per kWh and save 3 cents to 4 cents.
The savings come from the elimination of profit, income taxes and management compensation. It would also allow for the ratepayers to make decisions for the company based on their own interests.
One example would be the proposed upgrade of the island’s electric distribution system, which the current BIPCo management is opposed to. Many of the participants were interested in exploring this option no matter what other options are pursued. However, some questioned the town’s ability to effectively manage the utility.
The Consensus Building Institute that moderated the event will present a report to the task force on the results of the forum. The task force has said that it would like to continue to hold similar discussions with different interest groups around the island.
In the immediate future the Planning Board and Town Council will be reviewing an energy component to add to the comprehensive plan and the results of the forum could play a part in that discussion.
Island resident Maggie Delia thanked the task force for holding the forum and said, “I feel like I really was listened to and everyone’s voice was heard.”