President’s Report: In a Transition Year, Co-op Sees Changes to Broadband Partnership, Staffing

Coop CurrentsCoop News

by Stephen Knowlton

Sometimes, things seem to work out even if they don’t come off quite the way as originally planned. Readers of Co-op Currents will recall that Washington Electric had been in the process of applying for a $36.5 million loan from the US Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service to construct a 900-mile long fiber network in WEC territory over the next several years. This network, if approved by the WEC membership, would have two purposes. It would be leased to three not-for-profit Communications Union Districts (CUDs) who would offer access to high-speed internet to WEC customers. Secondly, it would provide the operations staff of WEC with real-time communication to its monitoring infrastructure as well as to our customers’ meters for improved service and customers’ rate options. WEC has been investigating the pros and cons of broadband for over four years, performed a feasibility study with support from Vermont’s Department Public Service, and recently framed a partnership with the local CVFiber, ECFiber, and NEK Broadband CUDs.

What has changed in the last few months is that the CUDs of Vermont will take advantage of federal grants to build the broadband fiber network on their own.

Stephen Knowlton

Until a year ago, funding for the prompt construction of such a network appeared to be beyond what CUDs could financially cover on their own. Previous federal grants to several commercial internet providers unfortunately has not resulted in adequate broadband access to rural areas, and paradoxically they precluded other providers from subsequently applying for grants to provide such access. Consequently, WEC conceived the idea of financing much of the fiber construction with a low-interest government loan available to electric cooperatives. In principle, the CUDs would pay off this loan through revenues and the electric ratepayer of WEC would be held harmless in paying off the loan. Of course, as with any loan, there were risks to be considered, and WEC and its partners have been exploring means to mitigate such risks.

What has changed in the last few months is that the CUDs of Vermont will take advantage of federal grants to build the broadband fiber network on their own. The impetus of this funding is the recognition across America of the growing importance of reliable broadband to our lives (the same reason WEC originally proposed to improve broadband access to the nearly three-quarters of its members who lacked service at standard modern data transfer speeds), amplified by the impact of being cloistered during the pandemic. The level of funding the CUDs anticipate receiving is sufficient to enable them to build out over half of the network they will need to provide internet service to their customers, including those in WEC territory. This federal jump-start will then allow them to seek the remainder of their cash needs from other sources, e.g. commercial lenders. So now that the dust is settling, it appears that those WEC members who desire high-speed broadband will be likely to receive it on the same time scale that was envisioned in the original partnership between WEC and the CUDs.

Despite this shift in plans, WEC will keep its momentum going to pursue its other goal of implementing high-speed communication and advanced customer metering for improving the functionality of its electric grid. There will be an increasing need to monitor distributed intermittent generators such as solar panels and high-current loads like electric vehicle chargers and heat pumps. The applications for battery storage will presumably become more widespread as time goes on. Rate structures that depend on the time of day at which customer usage occurs may prove be effective in managing load economically. Providing these features while adapting WEC’s system to the uncertainty of the changing weather on outage severity adds another level of complexity. Addressing these opportunities and challenges will ultimately require a more granular, real-time knowledge of the loads and generation across WEC’s grid including at all the residences. WEC staff will continue the exploration of smartening up its grid that it started as part of the larger broadband project.

Not all the updates on the past year at WEC are just about broadband. 2021 ushered in a number of changes in the people at WEC. A new general manager has taken over from the previous one. New people have replaced the outgoing directors of operations and engineering, and of finance. Some individuals have shuffled places in the organization, and we have new faces in member services, accounting, operations, and administration. And we have a new president of the Board, replacing the long-serving previous president who stepped down last June.

We value the experience of these departing employees who successfully served WEC members, and we are grateful for how well they carried out their jobs on our behalf through storms and crises. We welcome those who have newly joined WEC to carry the Co-op forward through a time of challenge and opportunity in the Vermont energy landscape. Despite these recent changes in personnel, the mission of WEC – to safely provide reliable electric service with minimal negative environmental impact – has not changed. WEC members can count on it continuing to reflect the core values of the Co-op.