Coordinator of BED’s Smart Grid Project: No energy or money savings for ratepayers

by Angela Chagnon

Ken Nolan, the Coordinator of Burlington Electric’s portion of the Smart Grid Project, admitted Thursday that ratepayers will not see energy savings or lower rates under the new grid/meter system.

“We have been very careful not to tell customers that they’re going to save energy from this technology,” said Nolan, who is also BED’s Manager of Power Resources.

The press conference, held on June 23rd at BED’s location on Pine Street, was an attempt to address concerns about the Smart Grid/Smart Meter (SG/SM) project that Burlington residents voiced to BED during last week’s “open house” event (see previous story here.) Voters will decide whether to approve a bond to pay for the new system on June 28th.

Several Burlington city councilors, BED officials, and business owners spoke in support of the proposed $13.5 million bond, of which about $7 million will pay for the SG/SM program. However, when Nolan took the podium, he provided frank answers that seemed to contradict supporters’ earlier statements.

Nolan’s comments came after several speakers had already claimed that the new system would save energy and reduce rates.

Spencer Newman, Chair of the BED Commission, opened the conference by stating that Smart technology would “improve energy efficiency”.

“The only reason that we should take on a bond like this is to increase efficiency and to reduce and stabilize our rates,” remarked Ward 5 city councilor Joan Shannon (D). “And that’s what this bond does.”

Ward 4 city councilor Kurt Wright (R) said that SG/SM would “make BED more efficient” and urged support of the project. “Waiting on this will mean higher rates for Burlington residents, for ratepayers,” he said, noting that if BED waited the federal grant money would not be available.

But Nolan provided a more realistic perspective. “What this technology really allows you to do is to move off from peak periods into evening and shoulder hours,” he said. “So the actual energy reductions, at least initially, are not anticipated to be that great.”

When asked if BED customers would see lower rates under the SG/SM system, Nolan replied, “We’re not trying to promise lower rates. What we’re saying is that by putting this technology into place, it’ll allow us to stabilize costs, stabilize rates going forward.

“We’ve had questions, ‘gee, you’re going to put the Smart Meter on the side of my house and I’m going to see my bill drop by ten percent’. That’s not going to happen.

“What this does is allow us to have technology that will allow us to control costs in the future and stabilize the rates as we look out for the next ten or fifteen years.”

The conflicting statements seem to imply that in their haste to implement the SG/SM project as quickly as possible, Burlington city officials have not brushed up on all the facts. This has raised red flags with some Burlington voters.

“I think voters should vote NO on BED special election question #1 because we have before us an incomplete project plan, an incomplete budget/business plan, and therefore NO debt plan and no firm information about what the project costs will be,” reads a ‘Citizen Press Release’ written by Burlington resident Lea Terhune.

In the statement issued following BED’s conference, Terhune questioned why the Lockheed Martin connection was being explicitly denied by officials.

“How can the project risks be managed if partnering relationships usually filled by Lockheed’s role on the Itron team, for equipment, integration services, installation and support, are not in place, do not exist?” she writes. “I could not learn at the Open House who is filling that role.”

Terhune’s release included a quote from Itron’s website. The quote reads, in part:

“If there’s one thing that 30+ years of experience driving innovation for utilities has taught Itron, it’s that our complex industry is bigger than any one company. The importance of combining the complementary expertise of Itron and Lockheed Martin cannot be overstated.”

A written statement issued at the conference by Consumer Outreach Director Tim Wolf of Itron reads:

“Yes, Lockheed Martin is one of those dozens of companies Itron can work with to deliver a solution to meet the utility customer’s needs, but Lockheed Martin is not involved in the Burlington Electric Department project in any way, shape or form.”

Lockheed Martin aside, Terhune voices her concerns about the project’s financial risk to ratepayers.

“How can BED ask for debt authority with such a big hole in the project (and project budget, debt repayment plan, etc.) is not known?” she asks in her concluding statement. “If they do not know, why are they putting ratepayers at risk?”

With no money savings, no energy savings, and more questions than answers, the SG/SM project is looking more and more like another Burlington boondoggle. Whether voters will tolerate yet another expensive project with a dubious outcome remains to be seen.