WEC Welcomes New Leadership, Looks Ahead to Grid Updates

Coop CurrentsCoop News

Seasonal right-of-way clearing underway to support reliability, broadband rollout, and advanced metering infrastructure
Election results; welcome new Directors

Steve: We had an unusual number of candidates running for election in 2022, so that’s a good sign that people are interested in serving their community and spending time on the Board. Something else that’s unusual, in my experience, is we had two open seats. Whether this is a sea change or not, indicating more turnover on the Board over the next couple years, we’ll have to see. I look forward to working alongside new Directors Betsy Allen and Susan Alexander and returning director Steven Farnham.

I thought the candidates who were not elected were highly qualified and would bring their own experiences and backgrounds to be able to contribute to the WEC Board, so I hope they’ll consider running again. I didn’t get elected the first time I ran for the board, and I believe that’s true of some my other colleagues on the board. I hope this spring’s candidates will try in the future if they’d like to serve.

Louis: Against the background of volunteer boards of all kinds struggling to find people interested to serve and give their time, seven well-qualified candidates for three spots is pretty unusual right now, and a great thing for the Co-op and the membership. We don’t have districts for our Board members, they all serve at-large, though it’s nice that we happen to have geographic diversity across the 41 towns WEC serves.

There’s another group of members who makes this possible: the Committee on Candidates volunteers and the ballot counters. It was a little more complicated for them this year, but they did great work and we’re appreciative of their help.

Steve: I’m very happy with the professionalism and integrity they brought to their job.

Bylaw amendment

Steve: The membership voted to amend our bylaws to allow for electronic voting. This bylaw change is essential for WEC continuing to adapt its procedures to keep up with the times. Electronic voting has become more prevalent. It’s not just a reaction to the pandemic, though to some extent it was motivated by the pandemic. For better or worse, people are doing a lot more of their communication online, so I think it’s a natural thing to allow our members to get the information they need and be able to cast their ballots online.

Louis: There are some technical and financial pieces to figure out how to implement electronic voting and at a reasonable cost. We’ll plan on keeping mail-in voting as well, but I’d like to make this available.

Steve: Yes, we have to kick the tires and figure out how to make it work in real life. At the same time, we recognize the virtue of getting together and talking about issues that face us today.

Louis: The balance is trying to make it possible for people to participate and to make sure the quality of their interaction is high. We faced a similar balancing act with our Annual Meeting, holding it again virtually because of Covid. We’re thinking of having a late summer get together at the warehouse with members, so we can get some of that face-to-face interaction with members as well.

Steve: We feel this is a twenty-first century way of approaching it, but it’s an age-old issue of how to get people informed and participatory.

Staffing update

Steve: In the past year, we’ve had significant turnover of staff, particularly at the leadership level. That includes the President of the Board. We are proceeding with largely new leadership in some areas, which can facilitate some new approaches while nonetheless adhering to  our values and mission previous boards and staff  have set.

Louis: And that’s balanced with a large number of people who have been at the Co-op for quite a while. We’re lucky to have people in all different sections of the organization who have a lot of institutional knowledge. That’s less common than it was years ago, to have people remain at one organization for most of their entire careers.

There has been a big shift at WEC particularly at the management level, but there are people who’ve been here a long time whose service to the Co-op and its members is lengthy and valued. It was good to see the list and recognize the people at the Annual Meeting who’ve been here a long time and done a lot for the Co-op over a number of years.

Legislative update: advanced metering infrastructure

Louis: There were a couple of items in bills passed this legislative session that could have an effect on WEC. The Clean Heat Standard bill, which was the centerpiece of climate legislation this year, was vetoed. That was mostly related to fossil fuel companies, but there’s an interplay there, because one of the goals of that bill was to require that fossil fuel heating dealers move their members onto other forms of energy, and away from fossil fuels. That would interact with WEC in several ways. That was vetoed this year, but is likely to be taken up by the Legislature in future years.

Over time, we’d like to move to a smart meter system. That will give us greater ability to provide time of use rates and allow us to identify outages and the sources of outages more quickly than we do now.

– Louis Porter

In the state budget this year, the Legislature included $8 million for advanced metering infrastructure [AMI] at public power utilities. We don’t know yet how that will be split up between the municipals and co-ops. For a while, WEC has had an objective to improve the AMI we operate on, and we expect to make those improvements in the near future.

Basically, now we communicate with members’ meters through copper lines, and that’s fairly limited in the scope of the communications it can provide. Over time, we’d like to move to a smart meter system. That will give us greater ability to provide time of use rates, allow us to identify outages and the sources of outages more quickly than we do now, and provide a lot of benefits in our up-to-date grid management system.

Steve: Getting a finer-grain knowledge of how power is being distributed and where it’s going, who’s using it, and how and when they’re using it, is the first step for a lot of these broader issues Louis just outlined. We need to understand when our members use their power – and how that evolves over time as, say, net metering, or whatever its solar replacement might be, evolves. Getting that type of info from our members’ meters may help us roll out more flexible rate structures that could benefit members while enhancing state energy programs. I think it’s appropriate to start planning for this now as it is the key to potential upgrades in operations.

Louis: In regard to state funding, WEC will certainly have to match at least 50% or probably more. We’re looking for meters that communicate either through broadband internet, which we expect will be more widely available to members as a result of the work of the CUDs [Communications Union Districts], or through radio frequency. As members and readers already know, the amount of federal money that came down meant WEC’s access to federal loans was no longer necessary, and we’re grateful that the CUDs will be able to do this on their own.

Steve: One of the reasons WEC started thinking about broadband in the first place was envisioning many of our members’ needs, and their overall quality of life related to digital communication. An ancillary benefit was using this for WEC’s own communications to provide the Co-op operations staff a better view of what’s going on during maintenance and outages. It’s possible our new metering network may make use of fiber backhaul from the meters to WEC headquarters, and some of that may be on newly strung lines. It’s a little early to tell the details.

The common theme is member service, providing what we think our membership will be needing.

Right-of-way updates

Louis: It can be surprising to see a line that hasn’t been cleared for many years, after it’s been cleared. But it’s our right and responsibility to clear rights-of-way. We do it for the safety of our members and neighbors.

This year, we’re looking at a lot of make-ready work on our lines for the CUDs to string fiber, and the tree crews are part of that. A lot of those lines will need to be cleared before the fiber can be strung. We’ve hired Asplundh in addition to the crews we have been contracting with for a number of years.

We try to be a good environmental steward in more than just sourcing renewable power. That’s what we hear from our members that they want.

– Stephen Knowlton

Steve: I see announcements in the Times-Argus from other utilities reminding landowners it’s their responsibility to ensure herbicides in rights-of-way don’t make their way into ponds and whatnot. We know these herbicides – there are powerful ones being used – may be lethal to aquatic life and disruptive to beneficial insects to name a few issues. I want to remind our members WEC does not use any herbicides in our rights-of-way. Does it cost a bit more in the short run?  Probably. We have to clear more often with mechanical methods. But it’s part of our mission to be a responsible partner with all our members. That includes not spraying herbicides in rights-of-way, especially those that go across people’s land. We try to be a good environmental steward in more than just sourcing renewable power. That’s what we hear from our members that they want.

Louis: It’s a good environmental part of our mission, but it does make keeping rights-of-way clear more complicated in what is already a rural co-op. It does add to our challenge, for sure.

Supply chain

Louis: The story on supply chain issues is still mixed. We’ve had some trouble getting the types of equipment and materials we need. We’ve been lucky getting some of the transformers we need, so we haven’t needed to suspend transformers for what we call “discretionary use,” such as upgrading them for members who want to increase the size of their service or install fast EV chargers. We are taking a cautious approach to those discretionary use upgrades, because we need to make sure we have enough transformers in stock if we have an outage and have transformer damage – which we do, not infrequently, over the course of the year. We need to be cautious in monitoring our supplies, but haven’t had to suspend those programs, which is great.

Supply chain issues are affecting other things, like meters in availability and cost. The availability of utility poles has been somewhat spotty. We’ve managed to avoid the worst of the supply chain issues so far, but are still cautious about our use and about laying in adequate supplies to make sure we have enough materials.

Steve: It’s a universal problem across a lot of industries. It’s not surprising we’d be one of them.

WEC on Rumble Strip / VPR

Louis: This was an idea that Erica Heilman, the producer of the Rumble Strip Vermont podcast who also does work for VPR, and I had when I came to WEC: about joining us when we had a significant outage to see what it’s like when we have an outage that lasts a couple of days. In late April we had a pretty significant outage, with 130 or more different issues on the lines. Erica came and talked to folks in different places in WEC, including Operations and Member Services, and went out with a crew as they worked on some power lines that had trees come down on them. The line crews did a tremendous job. We actually brought in a couple crews through mutual aid, and got power restored in good time.

The most interesting and fun part of that story is it got into what makes WEC unique and unusual as an electric co-op: that it’s member-owned, has a renewable energy mission, and serves a territory that’s rural and difficult to serve. The nature of WEC, and the family spirit and attitude of members and people who work here, really came through in that piece, and it was fun to see. The folks at WEC proved to be natural radio personalities, especially Amos Turner, who’s one of the line crew foremen, who really did a great job expressing why our territory is different and why the Co-op is different.

Steve: I enjoyed the piece. To me, it illustrated that a rural co-op doesn’t just sell power. We really do keep the lights on. Our operations crew and staff do it, despite what nature throws at them. I’m very proud of them and happy to be a part of an organization with this attitude.