Renewables a top issue for HEA candidates

Posted: Friday, April 01, 2011

Beginning April 1, members of Homer Electric Association can vote for a candidate from their district to serve a three-year term on the association's Board of Directors. One seat in each district is up for election this spring. In the next three years -- the term each director serves -- the board will be asked to move forward with the utility's Independent Light project, solidify a tidal power partnership with Ocean Energy Renewable Power and work with other utilities on potential energy projects like the state's proposed large hydro.

Mail-in ballots are due at the association's office by May 4, with last-minute voting available at the annual meeting on May 5 at Soldotna High School. Registration and voting will be at 4:30 p.m., with a business meeting starting at 6 p.m.

In District 2, which serves much of Soldotna, as well as Sterling and Kasilof, Dick Waisanen is running unopposed. The incumbent, Tim Evans, is not seeking re-election.

District 3 serves the south end of the Kenai Peninsula, from Kasilof to the Kachemak Bay area. In that district, Homer's Malcolm Gaylord is running against incumbent Mike Wiley, of Clam Gulch.

Mike Wiley

Incumbent Mike Wiley is finishing his first partial term after being appointed to a seat that opened up mid-term.

"I enjoy it," he said.

Wiley got involved in HEA business when the association tried to charge Cook Inlet Aquaculture for a line upgrade. The aquaculture association eventually sorted things out via litigation, and Wiley has since learned how the utility operates.

The biggest challenge the board will face, he said, is going independent.

"Getting that online is a challenge," he said.

Wiley said his vision for energy production in the future would have hydro at the Watana site, hydro at this end of the Railbelt, and some supplementary tidal in the Cook Inlet.

"And then the windpower can be interfaced with that," he said.

Wiley said there are downsides to every power source, but environmentally-responsible hydroelectric projects are a good option for the Kenai Peninsula.

The Grant Lake hydro project is an example of one that could anchor the south end of the Railbelt if done right, Wiley said. But he said he didn't support all hydro, like the now-dead Ptarmigan Lake hydro project.

"I think now that we need to build it," he said.

Wiley said he'd also like to see the utility work with individuals on their own small-scale energy projects, like solar panels and geothermal at individual homes.

Cost is another reason Wiley said he supports renewable energy projects.

"Initially they may have a high price," he said, citing the Bradley Lake project as an example of when the Peninsula has seen this phenomena play out. "In the long run, they're the best."

He contrasted that with natural gas, which he said is always going to increase in cost.

In general, Wiley said he wants to see costs kept down. While the association needs to fund Independent Light and other work, he had mixed feelings on the recent rate restructuring.

He supported raising the base rate. But he opposed the minimum energy charge.

"That is contrary to conservation," he said.

Conservation is a focus for Wiley.

"One thing that I think is critical is that we all conserve energy."

He said that concerns about having back up energy could be partially mitigated by conservation. If customers used a little less energy, the association would have less of a need to add a second turbine in Soldotna to accomodate peak use, he said.

The cost of back-up power, and power for peak use, when demand might exceed the utility's capacity to produce electricity, could be pricey as the association shifts to generating its own power, he said.

"When we're going independent, we have to look at those costs," Wiley said.

Malcolm Gaylord

Malcolm Gaylord, an electrical engineer from Homer, said he is running for the District 3 seat because he's interested in helping guide the association into the future.

"I'm really interested in where we're going in the next few decades and we're making those decisions now," he said.

Gaylord said his interest in the board was peaked when the association was discussing a possible investment in the Healy Clean Coal plant. Since then, he's been going to meetings and following the board more closely.

Gaylord said he wants to keep rates low, but that in the near future, he doesn't see them going down at all.

The rate restructuring effort is "a tough nut to crack," he said.

"No matter what you're going to do, somebody's going to be unhappy."

Gaylord said someone is always subsidizing someone else, but the board did it's best to find a workable solution.

"They did the best they could in a very difficult puzzle," he said.

The utility's best option is to "get off the roller coaster of fossil fuel prices," he said. More stable costs will boost the local economy, in addition to helping customers, Gaylord said.

Getting off the roller coaster will require switching to renewables for the utility's baseline energy needs, he said.

"For baseload, we're limited to hydro and geothermal," Gaylord said.

He said he could see the utility getting involved in geothermal mostly as a collaborative effort similar to the state's proposed large hydro, but that it had a lot of potential for the area. He said tidal power is something worth exploring, but probably couldn't be a primary source of energy yet.

The other shift Gaylord said he'd like to see in the association is more transparency.

"At this point, it's mostly just a matter of getting the membership more involved and increasing HEA's communications to them," he said.

Dick Waisanen

Soldotna's Dick Waisanen is running unopposed for the District 2 seat. Waisanen said he'd been interested in serving on the board for a while, and the timing was right for him to run for this seat. He has served on other boards, like at the United Methodist Church and the hockey association, and said he's made some noise in the past.

"I've always been active in politics," he said.

His biggest concern is affordability.

"We want to have people live in our community," he said.

Waisanen, a former teacher, school counselor and owner of a bed and breakfast, said he thought renewable energy would help keep costs stable because rates wouldn't be as dependent on variable oil and gas prices.

The utility needs to explore all renewables, he said.

"Anything we can do with renewables takes away from the fossil fuels," he said.

But he noted that renewables have to be approached with consideration for the costs. They often pay off in the long-run, but can be more expensive up front, he said.

"We need to move slowly to make sure its affordable," he said.

Waisanen said he thought tidal could make up a chunk of the utility's needs if it pans out. Hydro was another renewable that he said could play a larger role. Once the initial costs of hydro are paid, the project just keeps producing, he said.

"It just is renewable energy," he said. "It keeps coming."

But he didn't know exactly what the utility's power sources will look like in a few decades.

"The way our world changes so rapidly, 15-20 years, maybe there will be something new," he said.

Waisanen said that the cost to produce power isn't the only area where the association can control costs.

Better communication with members and more transparency could help mitigate the amount the utility has to spend to get its rate changes through the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. If people had a better understanding of why changes are needed, they likely would have fewer objections, he said.

"They have taken steps by putting things on the HEA website," he said.

More details on various changes and plans could be in the newsletters, which also would help keep people informed, he said.

"You've gotta have the communication between the parties," Waisanen said. The recent restructuring is an instance where there's been a lot of confusion and objection, but Waisanen said he thought that overall, the effort takes the utility in the direction of more fairly charging customers for the cost of power.

"I think that is a step," he said.

Waisanen said he's also interested in seeing the association work with other Railbelt utilities, as would be necessary for a large hydro project.

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