Crossing a line
Christopher Warfel, of Entech Engineering, a solar installation firm, is a regular presence at Block Island Utility District Board of Commissioners meetings. And he is usually critical of the board, mainly because he doesn’t like their policies concerning customer-generated power, especially the net-metering policies. On Monday, September 19, at a specially called meeting, the board told him he had “crossed a line,” and that they had been consulting with their legal team to see what actions may need to be taken.
The new net metering policy that BIUD implemented with the go-ahead of the Rhode Island Public Utility Commission is not as favorable as the old one. Customers that generate more electricity than they use are
credited at a different, lower rate, commonly referred to as avoided cost, than under the old net metering tariff. Under this method, those with solar pay a share of the utility’s distribution costs – the costs of poles, tree-trimming,
transformers, wires, and the systems that run them all, including an integrated accounting and billing system.
Lately Warfel has been skewing the description of the new system as the customer “selling power at wholesale, and having to buy it back at retail.” It’s a misleading analogy as the business terms indicate a price mark-up on a single item, and there is no actual mark-up on the power purchased and resold by BIPCo. Rather, customers are paying for a package of goods that includes much more than that unit of power.
Avoided cost doesn’t provide much of an incentive for individual solar systems, but it does avoid a situation in which other ratepayers are essentially subsidizing the cost of private solar systems.
Solar systems are the back-bone of Warfel’s installation business, and his growing frustration led to him creating a Facebook group called “Block Island Power Company Owners Forum” on September 1. His first post reads: “This forum has been created to provide a platform for people to discuss our electric power company’s policies. Each one of us is a shareholder of Block Island Power Company. However, most people are not aware
of important policies as few people attend meetings and BIPCo has done really no outreach in this area despite many requests to do so.”
A posting to the page by Warfel on or about September 14 though was the one that “crossed the line.” In it, Warfel wrote: “It seems like we are rotting from the inside out. Further investigation has uncovered what appears to be severe conflicts of interest and unethical conduct.”
The post goes on utilizing mis-statements to attack individual board members, their businesses or employers and their dual roles with other organizations. It ends with: “I will also state that this type of leadership is very similar to how the [Block Island Land Trust] is chaired. It is the same person as the chair of both, and the oligarchical approach to governance is identical. Have we not had enough of oligarchs?”
In prepared remarks for the meeting, BIPCo President Jeffery Wright said of the Facebook post: “The posts made untrue claims about current BIUD Commissioners, dragged their employers into the mess, and made further harmful statements pertaining to their personal lives and volunteerism at different organizations.”
“These types of slanderous comments toward volunteers are morally wrong. Furthermore, they come from a for-profit business whose goal is to maximize the return on investments of its customers and to make a profit.”
Wright went through all of Warfel’s post, which has since been deleted, refuting each of the mis-statements made, especially the most egregious, which implied that Barbara MacMullan, chair of the Utility District Board, was installed by her employer, Washington Trust, as some kind of puppet on the Board of Commissioners to further the bank’s financial interests.
In ending, Wright wrote: “This latest personal attack on BIUD Board of Commissioners members is wrong. Wrong in so many ways. It is hurtful, disrespectful, and slanderous, and crosses an ethical and moral line of decency. These Commissioners are volunteers that represent our members and to be publicly smeared and referred to as oligarchs is crossing a line.”
MacMullan wasn’t Warfel’s only target. He also went after Mary Jane Balser, co-owner of the Block Island Grocery and a retired finance director for the Town of New Shoreham, who he wrote, “was removed from her position...”
“I would like to speak for myself,” said Balser. “I take this statement in absolute disgust.” Years ago there were questions about some of Balser’s actions as town finance director since she was also a director at a bank in Connecticut where the town ended up investing some funds, which she explained in detail. “Ethics exonerated me 100 percent,” said Balser. “I never, never was relieved of my duties….I worked my tail off for the taxpayer dollar.” She ended by saying: “This is despicable. Shame on you.”
For her part, MacMullan said that “bank privacy laws dictate that I not say anything about banking.” She did though want to point out that the post was removed.
Before inviting comments from the public Wright said: “I’ll just close [by saying] that this is an all-time low.”
The only person to comment was Warfel himself, who said: “I extended an apology to everybody through my post.” Indeed, that post only apologizes for “mak[ing] it extremely difficult for John Warfel, my brother, and a Board member to do his job.”
He went on to explain that he had been working in solar for over 30 years and that he had seen Block Island as a sort of incubator for his ideas, or conception of what a utility might or could look like and that he thought the utility was going down the wrong path. “I was trying to prevent a tremendous problem in the future,” he said, without saying what exactly the “tremendous problem” would be.
“I think everyone recognized your passion,” said MacMullan. “We listened to you and we reached a different conclusion,” she said of Warfel’s policy concerns. “We welcome discussion about policy. What we don’t welcome is attacks.”