President’s and GM’s Message: Weather Trends and Today’s Priorities

Coop CurrentsCoop News

Storms Impact Vermont rural utilities in patterns of threes; welcoming JJ Vandette and Pat Barnes; acknowledging Dan Couture and Elaine Gonier; grant and legislative updates
Weather and Outage Management

Louis: Weather and outage management continue to be a major focus area not just for Washington Electric, but for our fellow electric distribution utilities.

Where and how the weather hits makes a tremendous difference as to what the outages look like. We had a string of six storms since mid-November. The first two are what I’d call a normal significant outage for us. The second two were fairly light for us. During the back-to-back January windstorms, we had between 800-1,000 members out at peak, and were able to restore them within a day. The way those storms tracked, Vermont Electric Co-op [VEC] was unlucky to have significant outages, and they were still hard at work restoring the first storm when the second storm hit. 

We’ve noticed storm impacts grouped by threes, interestingly. Each of the three major rural utilities–Green Mountain Power [GMP], VEC, and Washington Electric Co-op–experiences storms differently. Major storms cause outages in all three utilities’ service areas, but in each case, one utility territory was hit far harder than the others. For example, it was Washington Electric’s bad luck to get the brunt of the Christmas 2022 storm. GMP faced major outages in southern Vermont after the March 2023 storm. Those back-to-back windstorms caused a lot of damage to VEC to the north of us. It makes a huge difference where the winds and heavy wet precipitation hit.

Those three examples are interesting in part because for each utility that was hardest hit, it took five to six days to fully restore power in their territory. It was true for us last Christmas; last March, GMP took five days to restore power, the recent windstorms took VEC six days before full restoration. 

It’s not that one utility or another is better prepared, or faster. It depends on where the weather hits.

– Louis Porter

Those are long periods of time. It’s not that one utility or another is better prepared, or faster. It depends on where the weather hits. It also demonstrates why Washington Electric doesn’t typically hire outside crews ahead of storms. We just can’t be sure we’re going to need them, so it doesn’t make sense for us to use our members’ money that way. Out of the last two months, we had help from outside crews for two storms. We didn’t have enough outages to require them for the other storms.

Steve: It’s rolling the dice. For GMP, planning for a storm, the odds are they need outside crews, because their service area is larger and more diverse than WEC’s. For smaller utilities like WEC, the odds are lower that we will need outside help. In any case, we’re not competing in restoring service. All of us are using the resources we have and can procure to get power restored as rapidly as possible. Louis, can you talk about how Vermont utilities provide mutual aid for each other in major outage situations?

Louis: It’s a great point. Over Christmas of 2022, both VEC and GMP and a dozen other utilities and contractors sent us crews. In March of 2023, we sent at least one crew to help GMP. In January, we sent a couple of crews to VEC. Whenever a utility finishes restoration in their territory, they send crews to assist other utilities in Vermont and beyond as needed. While Washington Electric is smaller and can’t contribute as many lineworkers as our larger utility neighbors, we certainly provide mutual aid to fellow utilities as we can.

Anybody who lives in rural electric territory in the northeast can expect to have outages and extended outage duration. The many storms we’ve had in the past year bear that out.

Steve: I believe WEC has done well recovering from difficult outages this year. As Louis often says, the intensity of storms is increasing, the nature of outages is getting more severe. A big challenge we all face is adapting to the shifts in weather apparently resulting from climate change.

Last issue, we had a brief discussion about GMP’s zero-outages initiative. Particularly after major outage events, some WEC members approach us to ask how we’ll address these challenges.

Louis: I have an answer. There are things we can do around the margins. But we live in the country in bad and worsening storms, and outages are going to keep coming, and be worse than they used to be.

In five or ten years we’ll continue to see today’s new ideas being tested and implemented. But today’s new ideas may not be today’s immediate priorities.

– Stephen Knowlton

Steve: I recently attended a conference where, addressing this topic, a Wall Street Journal tech reporter said, “You can not expect the solutions of tomorrow to provide the needs for today.” In five or ten years we’ll continue to see today’s new ideas being tested and implemented. But today’s new ideas may not be today’s immediate priorities. Let’s talk about today’s priorities: I believe we have a personnel announcement.

WEC Hires Director of Innovation and Special Projects

Louis: I’m pleased to announce JJ Vandette has joined the staff of Washington Electric as our Director of Innovation and Special Projects. There’s an introduction to JJ on page one; here I will describe why we created this new senior management role. Electric utilities in Vermont and elsewhere are going through a tremendous period of change, experiencing both challenges and opportunities. That’s particularly true for Washington Electric. In addition to the systemic changes all utilities are going through, Washington Electric is experiencing changes in our operations and business. The purpose of this new position is to help us manage those changes in a productive and efficient way, and to make sure outside support, especially federal support that WEC members are entitled to and deserve a share of, is accessed to implement those changes.

The change to a more advanced metering system is the number one project JJ is going to work on. This has a lot of potential to change the way Washington Electric operates, in terms of saving our members money and outage management. We can envision many, many eventual projects like that: from utility-size batteries to improving our internal computer systems. That’s the purpose of the job, from my perspective.

JJ has a long history of work in the energy efficiency utility world. Energy efficiency is one of the major initiatives Washington Electric and its member ratepayers have been interested in advancing in our mission. He’s a good fit both in the work his role will entail and also in Washington Electric’s long-held culture and priorities.

Steve: Co-op Currents readers and WEC members may remember JJ ran for the WEC Board a few years ago, and received respectable support from the membership in his bid for election. I’m glad to see he’ll be working  with WEC, if not on the Board, then as part of the staff.

Appreciating Dan Couture and Elaine Gonier

Louis: I also want to acknowledge and thank Dan Couture and Elaine Gonier, both of whom retired from Washington Electric in January. They both contributed good and dedicated service for our members for many years.

Dan, our Systems Maintenance Technician, served for 13 years. He was one of the stalwarts of Washington Electric: a jack of all trades serving as stockkeeper, making sure equipment and tools are there when line crews need them, working to keep Wrightsville operating, providing disconnects and meter work, and doing all around great work for our members day to day and during outages. 

Elaine was a longtime Member Services Representative and retired as Senior Member Services Representative after 21 years at WEC. She had the frontline responsibility for representing Washington Electric to its members. In an organization that has a lot of difficult jobs in it, hers was both rewarding and also very difficult at times, as she often worked directly with members during some of their most challenging times.

Gordon Matheson is being promoted to Senior Member Services Representative; we will hire for a Member Services Representative and a Stockkeeper. I am grateful for Dan and Elaine’s commitment and good work and wish them both a very happy retirement.

WEC Directors Appoint Pat Barnes of Vershire

Steve: The Board of Directors appointed Pat Barnes from Vershire to fill the vacancy on the Board. Pat, like JJ, ran for the Board in 2022. We had three members who indicated their interest in being appointed to the seat vacated by Roger [Fox]. Each brought their own experiences and strengths, and each had good first-choice support among Directors. Pat was ultimately selected not only for his experience and skills. Cooperatives are democratically run, and we feel that boards work best when their composition reflects the diversity of their membership. The Board as a whole felt that appointing a qualified member from outside the area around Montpelier, where most elected Board members live, would help us improve geographical representation from our wider service territory.

Louis: Some utilities deal with this by having districts, like Vermont Electric Co-op. The WEC Board is rightfully paying attention to geographic diversity, even though districts are not a requirement for us.

Statewide GRIP Grant Application: Take 2

Louis: All of Vermont’s electric utilities got together to apply for a federal Grid Resiliency Innovation Partnership grant, or GRIP grant, funded through the Inflation Reduction Act [IRA]. The grant is for battery storage at various levels: home level as well as distribution utility level. We did not get the grant in our first attempt; we’re trying again.

Steve: Nationwide only 20% of GRIP applications were approved. It’s challenging. A lot of utilities are applying. That’s good, but it makes for a very competitive grant process.

Louis: Frankly, I’m excited that all Vermont’s electric utilities, the Department of Public Service [DPS], and VELCO could come together to put together a grant. It shows the level of cooperation of all utilities in the state, and the productive relationship between utilities and the DPS. Hopefully, on top of that, we’ll get the grant this time.

Legislative Update

Louis: Washington Electric has been part of an off-session working group to examine the state’s renewable energy purchasing mandates and whether those should be updated. We expect a bill will be introduced in the legislature to implement a version of what was agreed to by the members of that working group.

For Washington Electric, the most significant piece the working group agreed to is an acceleration of the timeline for all utilities to become 100% renewable. Washington Electric has for years now been 100% renewable, and is also supportive of all Vermonters having access to 100% renewable electricity while also advocating for that to happen at as reasonable a price as is practical.

It’s not just that people struggle to pay their bills, including electric bills. It’s that if the cost of renewable power goes up too fast and too rapidly, people will not be able to use electricity for heating and transportation. Electricity accounts for only 2% of the carbon load produced by Vermonters, whereas transportation and heat each account for about 36%. So, the goal is to use electricity for heating and transportation.

If this change is introduced, the practical effect for WEC is that load growth in our territory will not only have to be renewable, but not include additional hydro power beyond what WEC uses now. There will be some cost, because whenever you constrain where you purchase power from, it incrementally increases the price of power. The benefit is moving the state to a 100% renewable standard and all Vermonters having access to all-renewable electricity as Washington Electric members do now. It would also curtail, to some extent, group net metering, and as readers of Co-op Currents know, the Board and I have become concerned about the unnecessary increase in rates attributed to net metering, and the gradual cost shift to less well off from better off members. This bill hasn’t even had testimony yet so there’s a long way to go.

Steve: Looking at what other Vermonters hope to see in this proposed bill, the business perspective includes the promise of jobs and growth for some time to come. There’s the Vermont electric ratepayers, who have said in recent surveys that they value affordability and reliability. Hopefully what links all stakeholders is the desire to evolve our entire power portfolio to be as clean as possible.