Stakeholders to WAPA and DOE: It ain’t broke; don’t fix it

The Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Joint Outreach Team (JOT) heard from a broad range of individuals during five stakeholder workshops and six listening sessions related to Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s “Defining the Future” initiative to upgrade the transmission system within the country’s four power marketing administrations (PMAs).

Speakers included utility directors, co-op board members, farmers, ranchers, small business owners, and members of the general public. With few exceptions, the comments had a common theme: it ain’t broke, so don’t fix it.

Chu’s initiative, outlined in a March 16 memo, drew fire from a broad range of opponents concerned that changes to the way the PMAs operate would be detrimental to them, their customers or their constituents.

Chu’s senior advisor Lauren Azar, who attended several of the sessions, told the July 18 listening session in Billings, Mont., of the pressing need to upgrade the transmission system. Of the numerous wooden poles in the WAPA system, she said, “78% … are 40 years old or older, and are going to need to be replaced in the near term.”

In addition, Azar added, 24% of WAPA’s transformers are over 40 years old and have exceeded their useful life, while another 6% are nearing the end of their useful life. In fact, she said, the agency has one transformer that is 77 years old.

The need to update aging equipment provides an opportunity to upgrade the system to accommodate changing technology, Jeff Fox, Montana policy manager for the Renewable Northwest Project, told the panel.

“While the electricity industry is evolving, the outdated policies and operational protocols that govern much of the transmission system today are hindering the natural market evolution to a cleaner, more reliable, and more affordable energy future,” Fox said.

“These policies and protocols are increasing the cost of integrating variable energy resources, and are also increasing the cost of operating conventional resources to balance the natural fluctuations of load. All of these inefficiencies increase costs for rate payers,” he added.

Regardless of the need to keep the system up to date, several speakers questioned the need for the initiative, including Brandon Wittman, general manager of Yellowstone Valley Electric Co-op.

“PMAs have developed a process of providing energy, recreation, and other resources that works amazingly well. Simply put, PMAs pay their own way and provide benefits to millions,” he said.

“The directives outlined in Secretary Chu’s memo threaten the principles and agreements under which the relationship between PMAs and co-ops, such as Yellowstone Valley Electric, were formed,” Wittman continued.

Craig Herbert, general manager of NorVal Electric Cooperative in Glasgow, drove 300 miles to attend the Billings session. He said he was concerned that the sessions were merely window dressing, and that the outcome had been predetermined.

“I’m afraid … that DOE has already made up their mind on what they plan to do with the [WAPA] system, and we’re just using the workshops and listening sessions to smooth over things with Congress,” he said.

Herbert also criticized the strict limits placed on speakers’ time. “I don’t believe using the reasonable person standard one would consider three minutes per person ‘robust involvement’,” he said.

By the time they got to Phoenix on July 24, DOE and WAPA representatives said they’d heard five messages repeatedly, including that things were working fine between WAPA and its customers, and that stakeholders didn’t understand why the initiative was needed.

At the July 26 session in Sacramento, Azar said, “We heard loudly and clearly … that WAPA and its customers are already achieving many of the goals that are set forth in the secretary’s memo.”

The electric utility director for the city of Redding, Calif., was one such individual.

Though supportive of WAPA, Barry Tippin was critical of the DOE and, in particular, that Chu’s memo departed from well-established procedures for instituting change. Chu’s memo, he said, “was somewhat overwhelming in its message and sought sweeping changes through edict rather than established process.”

Some communications outside the context of the formal sessions indicated that understanding of the issues or the initiative may be incomplete.

Prior to the final listening session on Aug. 2 in Sioux Falls, S.D., Mike McDowell, the general manager of Heartland Consumers Power District tweeted that the session would be the “final ‘discussion’ of Chu plan that would dismantle federal hydropower program.”

The JOT will host a webinar Sept. 7 to summarize the input and comments received from the workshops and listening sessions, as well all more than 100 written and e-mailed comments from Tribal, customer, and stakeholder representatives.