The nearly 24,000 members of Homer Electric Association will soon have their chance to extend their involvement in the utility beyond flicking their light switches and into choosing the group’s leadership. In this year’s annual elections for the HEA board of directors, one of the three open seats is being contested between an incumbent and a challenger.
Three of HEA’s nine director seats open to election each year — one from each of HEA’s three districts. Members will vote by mail-in ballot, with the winner announced at HEA’s annual meeting on May 3 at Homer High School.
Dave Carey District Two
The unchallenged incumbent is Dave Carey, representing Soldotna and Sterling. A former mayor of Soldotna and of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, he first sat on the HEA board in 1989, though he’s been on and off since — serving a total of 27 years, he said.
The primary issue facing HEA in the upcoming three-year term, Carey said, is cooperation among operators of the Railbelt — a system of six interconnected utilities from Homer to Fairbanks that provide electricity to roughly 70 percent of Alaska’s population. Proponents have said greater Railbelt cooperation could make it easier to prioritize power from the system’s cheapest generators regardless of their ownership, and transmit it to users in the region of any utility without additional fees.
The Railbelt cooperatives Chugach Electric Association and Matanuska Electric Association have joined the Anchorage city-owned Municipal Light and Power in one such “power pooling” arrangement. HEA hasn’t joined that group, though “we’ve discussed the options and seen how financially it would work out,” Carey said.
Carey stressed the value of the utility cooperative model, especially in providing electricity to a large region with a small and far-flung population, where a business-run utility would be hard-pressed to make electrical distribution profitable. He said that as a co-op HEA provides electricity to areas of its service region — he gave the south side of Kachemak Bay as an example — where the utility is unlikely to ever have positive margins.
“One of the things HEA faces is to keep renewing with our members the importance of being part of a co-op — that we’re nonprofit, that we look out for everyone to the best of our ability,” Carey said. “To me, that’s a very important reality, especially in today’s political climate with people very much at each other’s throats.”
Roy Champagne District Three
Roy Champagne, the other unopposed candidate, is running in District 3, representing Homer, Seldovia, and part of Kasilof. The seat was vacated by former director Don Stead, who resigned from the board in February. Champagne, a logistics consultant who’s worked mainly for retail clients in the Lower 48, came to Alaska in 2016, where he said he had difficulty getting an electrical connection to his home in Anchor Point.
“Trying to get service to my home here, it was challenging,” Champagne said. “It seemed like one department wasn’t speaking to another. I was fortunate that there was already power to my property, but it was just the coordination to get a temporary pole to build my cabin. And once that was done, to get it inspected, and to go ahead and get it moved.”
Getting the temporary pole, Champagne said, took a few weeks, and eventually having the power line buried took about three weeks.
Champagne said he’d focus on finding “efficiencies across the board” in HEA’s business.
“I was fairly successful bringing efficiencies to other types of companies, and I think the core basic fundamental can be applied here,” Champagne said.
David Thomas and Jason Ross District One
The contested race is for District One — from Kasilof to Nikiski, containing Kenai — where incumbent director David Thomas is being challenged by Jason Ross.
Thomas, an environmental engineer who works on contaminated site clean-up, joined the HEA board in 2008 because he was “concerned about involvement with the Healy Coal Plant and our decreasing Cook Inlet natural gas supplies,” he wrote in his candidate resume. In 2005 HEA evaluated restarting the shut-down coal plant near Healy as a generation source, but in 2009 HEA’s directors voted to seek other generation. He wrote that his present concerns are increasing the efficiency of the gas-fired turbines that create roughly 80 percent of HEA’s electricity.
“My focus is sometimes a little different than other directors,” Thomas said. “Sometimes they’re understandably very concerned about rates next quarter — are they up a tenth of a cent or down a tenth of a cent — and I try to focus more on where I think we should be in five years or ten years. If that takes a tenth of a cent rate increase, or doesn’t, I let those chips fall where they may. But what kind of utility, what level of reliability, how much renewables do we want five or ten years from now, and let’s move in that direction.”
On power pooling, Thomas said he’d favor a more limited version of cooperation than the “tight pool” other utilities have formed.
“I’ve sometimes described my vision as a Craigslist for power — people could just post ‘here’s our buy and our sell,’” Thomas said. “We have these particular shafts spinning right now, and you need an extra megawatt, and we’ll say for this much in the next hour, whatever the economics of the gas we’re burning and the maintenance we’re incurring. Let’s just throw it out there, and if someone wants to buy at the price we want to sell, there’s a deal. I don’t know that it has to be any more complicated than that.”
Ross, a truck driver and U.S Army veteran, said he was seeking an HEA board seat “hoping to come with a fresh set of eyes and ideas and see what I can do to make things more efficient and smooth.”
“I think coming into it without being a part of the industry I can come in with some fresh ideas and maybe see some things that other people may not be able to see because they’re already trained to follow a certain procedure,” Ross said.
Ross also holds board seats in the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s advisory board for the Alaska liquefied natural gas project and in Citizens for Nikiski Incorporation, a group petitioning the state to incorporate Nikiski as a city.
With Nikiski’s fast growth of population and property development, it may need changes in electrical service, Ross said.
“One of the things I’ve noticed is it seems that there’s been a rise in the cost to get electricity to someone’s property,” Ross said. “I’d like to find ways to minimize that, so that way people can develop their land. I think that’s a particular thing that’s cost-prohibitive sometimes for people to build. They want to build a house on a piece of property, but if it costs them $10,000 or $15,000 to bring electricity to it, they’re not likely to go ahead and do it just because of that one particular cost.”
Nikiski’s industrial area — home to the inactive Nutrien (previously Agrium) fertilizer plant, inactive natural gas export terminal, and Andeavor (formerly Tesoro) petroleum refinery — is a major consumer of electricity. The refinery accounts for about 15 percent of HEA’s annual kilowatt-hour sales. The area is also the planned site of a larger LNG export terminal that the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation aims to build by 2025.
“I’m expecting that if this LNG project comes in like they’re talking, there’s going to have be some changes made for that, a facility of that size — just the amount of lightbulbs that are going to be in the building, not to mention all the other stuff going on, pumps and the whole process” Ross said. “I think HEA’s probably going to have to look at making some changes of how and where they get power, to accomodate everybody. Not just big industry, but houses and homes and small businesses.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org