By Louis Porter
About five months ago, I began working for Washington Electric Cooperative, and I continue to be amazed by the warm welcome and generosity shown by my colleagues, the members, the Board of Directors, and those who work in Vermont’s public power system.
Our corner of Vermont, and the world at large, have faced tremendous upheaval from ongoing pressures and new ones, including tumultuous energy markets, climate change, a pandemic, and, recently, a war in Europe. But those challenges have made ever clearer the need for electrical cooperatives and the importance of the values on which they were founded.
If we learn from those experiences, WEC and other utilities like it will be there to serve members well for another 80 years.Louis Porter
These values inform every decision the Board of Directors and staff make. Without ownership and control by those who rely on and pay for the power, the Co-op’s commitment to community over self-interest cannot be fully realized. Our members count on us for support. And cooperation, education, and shared knowledge are essential tools when circumstances are changing so rapidly and our ability to communicate and gather is hampered.
While it has been a challenging year for WEC, the Co-op has grown in terms of capability and technology. If we learn from those experiences, WEC and other utilities like it will be there to serve members well for another 80 years.
The pandemic has had profound effects around the world and WEC is no exception. Some of those changes have not been surprising, from eliminating non-essential work travel and introducing remote office work to implementing mask and social distancing requirements. Others were harder to anticipate, but just as real, such as a shortage of some materials, like transformers, or dramatic increases in prices due to supply chain issues and panic buying.
As of this writing, our offices remain closed to the public, except by appointment, which has been a necessary but difficult precaution for an organization so connected to its community. My office opens off the main lobby of our building, and hearing conversations with members as they come in to pay a bill or ask a question has been an important part of learning the organization. I miss it, as I know others at WEC do, and look forward to opening the office again as case rates and hospitalizations continue to improve.
Many of our colleagues, members, neighbors, and friends have struggled during the pandemic, whether from illness, financial insecurity, or isolation. The financial part of that has been clear to us, as some members struggle to pay their bills. Our Member Services Representatives have done great work, reaching out to our members with help accessing several state assistance programs and working together to create a plan forward.
Cold weather in January and global insecurity about energy availability and costs have necessitated the Co-op and other New England utilities purchase power from a volatile market seeing prices not experienced in decades. Compounding the issue, expansion of the Coventry landfill caused a decrease in power production at the WEC plant there, which runs off landfill gas and is our largest single source of electricity. In the last couple of years, the plant supplied about 70 percent of WEC’s power needs, but that dropped to about 68 percent in 2021. Given the relatively low cost of that electricity—about half the cost of electricity from the Ryegate wood chip power plant—that decrease has had a significant impact on the Co-op.
Fortunately, the landfill’s expansion is largely complete, and we expect power production from Coventry to return to its typical production.
Of course, one of the most important things to our members is that the power is there when they require it. The Co-op has one of the most rugged territories around and much of its nearly 1,300 miles of power lines is built away from roads and easy access. The operations crews work hard to restore power, even as Vermont weather grows increasingly severe due to climate change. With last year’s labor shortage, our team faced even greater challenges. Members experienced more outages, but were in the dark less—about 20,000 consumer hours less—than they were in 2020. Thank you to our committed lineworkers, operations team, and all of our staff.
In 2021, we had two weather events that met the definition of “major storms”—one in January and one in May. Outside of those major storms, there were 874 outages in WEC territory in 2021, up slightly from 730 in 2020. In all, there were 84,479 consumer hours of lost power in 2021, compared to 105,636 in 2020.
Thank you for being members of this great Cooperative. Reach us at 802-223-5245, toll-free at 800-932-5245, or at email@example.com. When the doors reopen, pop by my office to say hi.