Plymouth Utilities overlooking chance to promote alternatives

Shades of GreenShades Green
by David Lagerman

Plymouth Utilities may be an entity we take for granted, but we should not. They provide a bunch of basic services for many of us, and they are pretty good at it, too.

They also position themselves as partnering with all of us: progressive, thoughtful, co-operative and forward-looking. Here is some text from a newspaper ad they ran last August14th, under a little picture of some houses, power lines, and a wind turbine.

“THE POWER is in THE PEOPLE. Plymouth Utilities is a local not-for-profit. So while we may provide the energy that keeps Plymouth running, it’s our neighbors who really have the power. The power to use community dollars for the common good. To invest in local priorities like a stronger economy, green alternatives and reliable service. And the power to put our community first.”

“It’s our neighbors who really have the power.” Two of our neighbors who really do have the power are Dan and Jackie Kraemer out on Highway V. In April 2011 they had in mind installing a large wind turbine at an ideal site on their large dairy farm. They and their installer, Kettle View Renewable Energy, approached Plymouth Utilities about the project, and were told they could negotiate a rate to be paid for their excess power. The term used in one of their emails, “installing a net meter” led to some confusion, implying that they could likely get the same rate for all their excess power as they pay for power from the utility. (“Net metering” is the law in Wisconsin and many other states, but it applies as a firm rule only to systems under 20 kilowatts (kW) in size. The Kraemer turbine is a 100 kW unit.) For a while, it looked like they could get a good enough rate to make the project feasible, since they were told they could negotiate a rate.

On that basis, given the urgent deadlines Kraemer faced in qualifying for grant money, they went ahead and ordered the installation, a half-million dollar project, without getting an agreement in writing.

Eric Kostecki, an official at WPPI Energy, the wholesale supplier to Plymouth Utilities and several dozen municipal electric utilities in Wisconsin, had said the Kraemers “would be credited at Plymouth’s latest wholesale rate tariff unless that does not accurately depict (the Utility’s) avoided cost.” This last is an important point. The utility needs to meet the costs of bringing in the power they get through WPPI. That evidently covers costs to get power from as far away as Milwaukee, and also factors like local “line losses,” the loss in energy from resistances and such in the power lines. If that can be put largely out of the picture by buying power locally, the difference to be paid the local supplier should be the true “avoided cost” rate.

Now, WPPI sets that “avoided cost” rate from a rigid schedule, and has refused so far to consider alternative approaches for providing fair compensation to the Kraemers.

This is odd, because, as I understand it, nearly all the other utilities in Wisconsin practice “modified net metering” in situations like this. To describe it is a bit involved, but it amounts to crediting any excess power produced over a 12-month period at the customer’s full retail rate, so long as the customer’s output does not exceed his/her’s total consumption during that time. Under this arrangement, only a few excess kilowatt-hours (kWh) from the Kraemers’ wind turbine would be subject to the “avoided cost” or wholesale rate. As it turns out, their declared wholesale rate is a paltry $0.34/kWh, or three cents and change.

What this means in essence is this: The modified net metering rate is a rate the supplier could generally live with. It seems to be a fair scheme. Most other utilities in Wisconsin do this. Without it, projects like the Kraemers’ would just not happen in Wisconsin.

However, WPPI and Plymouth Utilities do not see things this way, and their unhelpful attitude is inflicting substantial economic harm on the Kraemers. They have so far only encountered a stone wall. “This is the rate” they say.” “Period. End of discussion.”

Now, there are other factors to be considered too: The Kraemer farm is at the end of a long set of wires. The line losses out to there are relatively high, about 6.0%, according to a consulting engineer. Since the turbine is generating power locally, the excess, going largely to near neighbors, avoids most of those losses. There is another estimated 2.5% transmission loss to the big system avoided because of the 23.9 Kw reduction in generator load from the turbine. “Plymouth and/or WPPI is/are getting about a 1.9 Kw windfall,” the engineer reports.

You see, this is the whole idea about the benefits to the environment and the economy of “distributed generation,” from wind, from photovoltaics, from co-generators, anything. Generate the juice close to where it’s used and you end up with greater efficiency and less infrastructure all around. Plymouth Utilities purports to recognize all this. “Green alternatives,” remember? --So we have all that.

Additionally, we have the Kraemers, who, acting in good faith, did what they thought was the right thing to do, for everybody, and who thought they would be treated reasonably within the full context of a project like this. They have so far only encountered that stone wall. This arbitrary number WPPI imposes, 3.4 cents, is a bit startling, with Plymouth being charged by WPPI 7.6 cents this year for its supplied power.)

Plymouth Utilities and especially

WPPI appear not to have thought very deeply about this matter. In this they are evidently out of step with most of the industry in Wisconsin. It may just be that they, understandably, stick to what they traditionally “know” and are not actually considering the implications of something new, like the need here to take into account all the factors: lowered transmission costs, cleaner air and the big conceptual picture. Hence, they have so far passed up the chance to do the right thing, not just for the Kraemers, but in the long haul, for everybody.

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