HEA races buzzing along

Posted: Tuesday, April 22, 2003

The race is on as ballots for the Homer Electric Association board of directors elections went out earlier this month and should be in members' hands.

Incumbents are renewing their candidacies in all three districts. District 2 (Kasilof, Soldotna and Sterling) will find incumbent David Carey, Soldotna's mayor, running unopposed, while competition exists in the South Kenai Peninsula district, and the Kenai-Nikiski district will see a three-way race.

Current board president, Ronald Rainey of Kenai is defending his District 1 seat against fellow Kenai residents Richard DeMello and Bruce Passe.

DeMello proposes use of tidal currents in Kachemak Bay to produce inexpensive energy for homes and businesses in that region.

"They're doing it in other places like England," he said. "Why aren't we doing it here? That information is already available for us to tap."

DeMello said he wanted to lower electricity rates to a point where those who wanted could use it as their only option of heating and running their homes.

"I'd like to see electricity inexpensive enough that more people would start using it," he said. "I'd like to have my entire house run on electricity. It's cleaner, but it's too expensive."

Passe also pointed to high electricity rates as a reason for joining the race but said he took some issue with the cooperative's current ability to respond to weather-related outages and with a new limited liability company the nonprofit utility has proposed creating.

He said the concept of the proposed Homer Electric Line Services LLC, which would install telephone lines at the same time it would install electrical services to homes, could potentially take work from phone contractors.

"On the surface, it looks like a great deal, but should a nonprofit co-op be competing in the private sector?" Passe asked.

The Peak Oil manager also questioned HEA's scheduling practices for crisis response workers.

"Currently, HEA doesn't keep enough employees on hand," he said. "During this last windstorm, people out the North Road were out of power for up to five days.

"We've gotten used to calling Chugach and Anchorage Municipal when we have problems. But that windstorm affected them, too, and they couldn't release anybody and we didn't have the people on the payroll."

Passe said he would suggest keeping workers on payroll at limited hours, "because it's going to cost me more if I let them go and then the work comes up and they're not available."

While both Rainey's opponents say they wish to push for lower rates for consumers, the two-term incumbent contends that experience is crucial to the electricity cooperative at this time.

"I've seen new members come on the board, and it literally takes years to come up to speed on all the issues."

He said one issue that requires extensive knowledge in order to make good decisions for the co-op is the 30-year electricity delivery agreement HEA started with Chugach Electric in 1986.

"The ins and outs of the agreement you could write volumes about," Rainey said. "It takes time to understand them. We have a limited time to extend the contract with Chugach or find other power sources."

He said he wants to continue working toward renewing the agreement with Chugach and finding new energy sources and pointed to work done at the Agrium Cogeneration plant as an example of the future of power sources on the peninsula.

"The 40 megawatt plant produces power at one of the lowest rates on the Railbelt," he said.

Rainey defended the proposed line service, saying it would be a subsidiary of the cooperative that could help offset the cost of electric installation.

"If it creates cash flow into the co-op, that offsets our other costs," he said. "It's not taking anybody's job, just putting the services for less cost for our consumers."

In the South Peninsula's District 3, Robert Turkington is defending his seat against John Standefer. Like DeMello, Standefer is in favor of exploring use of tidal currents as a future energy source. He said it is important the cooperative look into renewable power supplies.

"Just the magnitude of the tides out of Kachemak Bay gives us an opportunity to have a reusable energy source," Standefer said. "When the gas runs out, what are you going to use. Plus, it's environmentally safe."

He said as a board member, he would be more open to co-op members about what decisions the board makes, and more clear about how those decisions impact end users.

"I believe in a strong board, and I don't believe in Enrons," he said. "You're responsible to the people. I don't believe in gray areas. Decisions should be in black and white."

Turkington said he had no special agenda but relied on his 37 years as a board member to continue to help with serving HEA members.

"I just want to keep things running the same as it has been," he said.

Carey said although he is running unopposed, he still has a number of issues he wanted to continue to push.

"I have a real concern that we seem to have gotten away from our core business, which is electricity," he said. "We have been talking about numerous forms of business ventures. If those businesses should fail, the consumer absorbs the cost. I don't support the idea that the electric consumer should have to pay the cost."

Carey suggested the proposed subsidiary, which will be known as Homer Electric Line Service, should be reexamined before being implemented in the wake of questions and negative feedback from members.

"It's valid to say that if there's smoke, you should look to see if there's fire," he said. "If you have people asking those questions who have knowledge, from my standpoint as a trustee, there are still reasons for me to have a concern."

Carey said he also is concerned about the direction the cooperative is taking in plans to respond to electrical outages.

Last year, HEA had almost all of the components of the electrical grid cataloged in a central computer system using global positioning system at the cost of $1 million. The goal is to, over the next three years, spend another $3 million to automate the process of pinpointing and correcting these problems, which Carey said he opposes.

"We all know that computer programs have to be upgraded every two or three years," he said. "We're going to spend $4 million to make us more efficient, but then have to spend a half million every few years to upgrade the software? I would rather see us use that money to have high standard employees than state-of-the-art technologies."

Other issues Carey raised included what he considers to be excessive trips Outside for board members and staff, and an unequal distribution of expenses to different classes of customers, with residential consumers carrying the brunt of the load, while the big industrial facilities in Nikiski are supplied electricity at cost.

"We did it to get those bigger companies on line earlier on," he said. "And we've given back capital credits to large consumers early, whereas with homeowners and small businesses, we give them on a 14-year rotation. I don't think that's fair. A user is a user."

Ballots, which were mailed out to HEA members earlier this month, are due by 5 p.m. May 6. Members also can drop off their ballots at the annual board meeting May 7 at Soldotna High School, where winners will be announced.

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