Big projects ahead for B.I. Utility District

Thu, 01/28/2021 - 5:30pm
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The Block Island Utility District Board of Commissioners’ had what Chair Barbara MacMullan described as a “meaty” conversation at its meeting on Saturday, Jan. 23. There were several topics discussed, most of which involved planning for big projects.

Some of those projects had been put on hold during the current Covid-19 pandemic, such as the soil remediation and voltage conversion projects. Others, including plans for a new house for President Jeffery Wright, have been slowly moving along behind the scenes, and one project, which could be of high significance to the island, is in its infancy.

The soil remediation project was originally slated for this past fall and involves the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, which has a fund for the cleanup of contaminated soils. Wright reported that the area to be excavated relates to an old gas station and goes back to the 1930s and 40s.

While things were on pause due to Covid, Wright said the DEM representative he was working with retired, and he is now working with a new representative who found “a little more contamination” than previously thought. The project will involve moving 2200 cubic yards of soil – two barges worth – off island and replacing the soil with an equivalent amount.

DEM has a fund that will cover all “usual and customary costs,” but whether that will cover the total cost is yet to be seen. If labor is limited to a certain rate that is lower on the mainland than the island, and if ferry charges are not included, BIPCo could be left to pay more than expected. Although Wright said he would like to see the project completed next fall, we “don’t want to commit until we get the final costs.”

Resident Chris Warfel asked why the contamination wasn’t revealed at the time environmental studies were being performed before the town bought out two-thirds of the old private BIPCo’s stock. (The stock purchase was the first step in the evolution of BIPCo from a privately owned for-profit company to the non-profit quasi-municipal entity it is today.)

Although Wright was not around at the time, he said that for many years BIPCo has been doing quarterly testing of wells, and reporting on the results to the DEM. He said he believed that because of seams of clay in the soil, the contamination was simply not flowing through to the test wells.

The voltage conversion project involves upgrading the island electric distribution grid to a wye system, from the current, outdated delta system. “If COVID didn’t jump into our lives, we’d be doing it now,” said Wright.

Two of the circuits, the Old Harbor and New Harbor ones, are already at maximum capacity and sometimes, when the load gets too high, experience problems.

Wright said that Champlin’s Marina, which runs on BIPCo power during the off-season, switches to its diesel generators for the summer season. The new owners of Champlin’s explored the idea of becoming BIPCo customers year-round during the due diligence process they performed before the purchase.

Champlin’s peak power usage in the summer is about 800 kw, a significant amount compared to BIPCo’s peak of 5,000 kw. Further, the new owners want to expand their facilities such that they might require 1,500 kw.

“I want to be supportive, but we have to do the voltage conversion first,” said Wright. He also added that such an increase in usage would require a new Cost of Service Study, and very likely trigger a new rate case. “It’s that significant to us.”

“We should do this voltage conversion sooner than later,” said MacMullan, adding that there was an environmental advantage to getting Champlin’s off its diesel generators.

The voltage conversion project could be folded into a grander plan. Wright presented a “concept paper” put together by the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources for purposes of applying for a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy “funding opportunity.”

Wright said that the OER reached out to him and that Block Island could be eligible for up to $7 million from the Department of Energy, although the concept paper envisions $5 million in DOE funds and a $3.8 million “cost share.”

Block Island is unique in Rhode Island for being the only electric utility with smart meters for all its customers. That opens up a host of possibilities for managing the grid, and making it a “smart grid.” The project would implement new technologies including additional solar systems, battery storage systems for solar energy, electric vehicle charging stations, and the voltage conversion project to “improve grid utilization, stability, and enable thermal and transportation sector electrification and associated greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” according to the concept paper. It also suggests that the project could be used and scaled up as a model for other communities.

The concept paper, which will be limited to four pages, is just the first step. If the DOE accepts it, BIPCO and the OER will be invited to make a full grant application.

Although it might be a longshot, Wright said: “It’s worth throwing our hat in the ring.”

The concept paper is quite involved, leading Commissioner Everett Shorey to say: “We need to fit what we want to do under their rubric and not be dragged into” what they want us to do.

Wright pointed out that the way the cost sharing aspect of the program was presented was somewhat confusing, and included investments from customers.

“I want to make sure we understand all of the cost parameters,” said MacMullan. “That said, it’s a great opportunity for us.”

Wright said that the OER would do most of the “heavy lifting” on the application. He said that in the past he had two opportunities to get large grants when he was working in Vermont. “Don’t think this is pie-in-the-sky,” he said. “You have a good chance.”

If the Utility District is invited to apply based on the concept paper, the utility would need a letter of support from the town for the five-year project.