Utility District looks back and forward

Thu, 09/02/2021 - 3:00pm

The Block Island Utility District has accomplished a lot in its relatively short life and on Saturday afternoon, they celebrated with an annual meeting.

After years of planning, the BIUD really only came into being in late March, 2019, when, after getting enabling legislation passed by the Rhode Island General Legislature, it purchased the assets (land and equipment) of the Block Island Power Company. It was a final step in a series of transactions
whereby the town had purchased two-thirds of the stock of the Block Island Power Company. The original BIPCo changed its name to Island Light and Power, and the utility district is “doing business as” the Block Island Power Company.

The result is a ratepayer-controlled not-for-profit and such transformations from private to public are rare. One constant through the transition years has been the presence of President Jeffery Wright. After thanking everyone who works for the power company at the beginning of the meeting, BIUD Chair Barbara MacMullan announced that a new five-year contract with Wright had been agreed upon.
For his part, Wright, who moved to Block Island with his spouse from Vermont to take the job, joked that the agreement was really with his wife. Later in the meeting, during his president’s report, Wright detailed the improvements made over the past few years with tree-trimming and pole replacement programs. Those, he said, were why Block Island weathered Tropical Storm Henri the week before so well. While there were downed trees, they didn’t hurt the power lines. Tree trimming also makes the line-workers’ jobs easier, he said.

“I’m very proud of the pole replacement,” said Wright. “Since 2018, we’ve changed one quarter (500) of the poles.” Most of the work has been done inhouse, with the help of some local contractors to set them. “Then the contractors bang out the transfers,” he said.

Wright also addressed a question brought up during the public comment period by an attendee about the price increases in the summer months. A rate change went into effect in June of 2020. Although the board and Wright refer to the new rates as “revenue neutral,” meaning the total revenues collected for the year remain the same for an equal number of kilowatt hours sold, rates have increased in the peak months of July and August, while rates in the winter have decreased. This was the result of a cost of service study, and the idea is that the summer demand is what drives the size and capacity of the distribution system, and so users in that high-demand period should pay for it. To address the question, Wright said: “You’re right – your rates went up if you are a June, July, August customer.”
That capacity even now is pushing up against the limits of the system. Just the evening before the meeting, on a hot, muggy, windless Friday night, Wright said: “We were on pins and needles,” hoping that the system would hold during what appeared to be one of the highest demand periods ever for the utility. Wright said the demand has gone up from a peak of 5 megawatts in 2016 to almost 5.5 megawatts this summer.
A solution to the situation is in the works. Wright said that the voltage conversion project would be tackled in 2022. At a cost of $1 million, the capacity of the system will double, line-loss will go down, and brown-outs will be eliminated. When the power does goes out, it will go all the way out. “It will be black and white,” said Wright. “No brownouts.”

Other projects in the works involve bringing in more power from renewable sources with the pending filing of a new net-metering tariff. Wright said he “likes buying local,” and that by sourcing energy on the island, there is the added benefit of avoiding transmission costs through the National Grid-owned cable from the mainland.
“We’re doing good things. We hope you reap the benefits,” said Wright.