As general living expenses continue to climb, one area that should remain relatively flat for the next few years is with power bills from Peninsula Light Company. But it’s taken innovative thinking and future planning to get there.
PenLight announced last week that Bonneville Power Administration, its primary source of energy, plans to raise its wholesale electric rates to other utilities by 9.6 percent beginning Oct. 1. That comes on the heels of a couple of smaller increases in the past few years, and on both of those occasions, PenLight delayed increases announced in the fall through the heavy use during the winter season and raised rates to its own customers the following spring.
This time, the PenLight board of directors determined the utility cooperative that serves the Gig Harbor and Key peninsulas can absorb all of BPA’s rate hike without passing it on to its members.
PenLight has been proactive for the better part of the past decade, particularly since CEO Jafar Taghavi arrived in 2007. One of his first orders of business was to ask the engineering department to propose a sustainable reliability program that would be affordable. The cooperative invested several million dollars during a multi-year process to bury its overhead cables, a process that has limited damage during heavy winds and rain, reduced material and labor costs.
PenLight currently has 70 percent of its system buried, and it plans to complete another 100 miles by 2017, when only about 20 percent of the system will remain overhead, according to Jonathan White, PenLight’s member services director.
It’s worked so well that PenLight was dispatched to help Tacoma Public Utilities restore service east of the Narrows bridges during the last major storm in January. It was the first time TPU called PenLight for help.
“Historically, it’s been the other way around,” White said.
While undergrounding cables is one piece of the puzzle — PenLight officials have focused on the most vulnerable points of its distribution system throughout the process — the company also has worked on conservation and efficiencies. Voters approved a clean-energy initiative (I-937) in 2006 that requires utilities to use an increasing amount of renewable energy — up to 15 percent of its overall portfolio by 2020. Most of PenLight’s power comes from BPA and its hydroelectricity, but it also partnered with a handful of utilities to build a windmill farm called Harvest Wind in the hills above the Columbia River Gorge.
At the same time, BPA put more emphasis on different rates on a three-tiered system that becomes more expensive for utilities that use more power. PenLight’s conservation efforts have mitigated its exposure to those tier-two rates.
A few smaller programs also have contributed to PenLight’s overall savings. It invested in automated metering, which eliminated human error that came from reading meters and cut out overtime for those employees.
It now imports those meter readings into the billing system, and it only takes a few hours to process. The utility outsources the bill-printing procedure, and that saves postage, printing expenses and the cost of maintaining the associated equipment.
PenLight also looks to its members to support struggling families through Project Help, a program that provides up to $200 per year to income-qualified members to help offset utility costs. Its own members donate about $25,000 annually, and PenLight matches every dollar.
Taghavi and the elected PenLight board of directors should be proud of the company’s accomplishments, which also include giving back to several community organizations in the form of rebates and sponsorships.
It takes guts to conduct business outside of how a company is used to operating, but Taghavi has led that charge, and PenLight members are starting to see the fruits of their labor.