English: Even with problems, buying KE was the right move

The executive director of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association said that, even with current trust issues and other problems, Kauaians made the right choice to purchase Kauai Electric three years ago.

“I think you’re moving down the right road. People made the right decision to go with the coop model,” said Glenn English, a former 20-year member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Oklahoma.

“The people of Kaua’i are smart enough to take care of their own power needs,” he said.

The changing of the former, for-profit Kauai Electric, owned by leaders of the for-profit Citizens Communications in Connecticut, into the member-owned, nonprofit Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative, in the long run will be a good thing for residents of the island, he added.

KIUC leaders’ performance is “rather remarkable,” to purchase an investor-owned utility and transform it into a co-op through a “buyout,” he said. “No one’s done anything like KIUC,” English continued.

Leaders of KIUC took on “some enormous issues,” including the escalating cost of fuel, generation, examination of alternatives to burning fossil fuel, and even becoming the first electric coop in the state and the regulatory issues that arise out of that situation, he added.

And for those who are critical of some of the spending, travel and other decision-making involving money members pay for their electric bills, English invites them to consider the situation of a co-op in Alaska, whose leaders, faced with the prospect of not having fuel to generate power, had to fly oil in at a shipping cost alone of $5 per barrel.

Getting back to alternative-energy ideas, English said that he is not that familiar with conditions on Kaua’i, but noticed, “you get some wind here,” but he is not sure whether or not wind power will work here, because of reliability and other issues.

“We think renewables are important,” and that KIUC leaders are headed in the right direction in exploring all manner of renewable-energy ideas in order to cut down on the dependence on fossil fuel to generate electricity, he said.

That’s especially important now, since not too far down the road KIUC leaders will have to start planning for new plants to generate electricity.

Nationally, one new generation facility is needed each week for the next 20 years, because of economic growth, he said.

Fuel costs, construction costs, environmental regulation, and other matters all drive up the cost of producing electricity, and distributing it to members, he said.

For that and other reasons, conservation should be important to members, as it is to KIUC staff and directors, he said.

On the issue of training for KIUC staff and board members, English stressed that training is important, and mandatory in some cases, for staff and directors, especially in matters of regulatory and legislative affairs.

Directors must receive training sufficient for them to become certified cooperative directors, and sometimes that means they have to travel off-island to get that training, he said.

As he mentioned earlier, it is important for directors and KIUC staff to be open, honest, and communicative, with members, about future plans, English said.

The coop model has shown its resilience. “Enron went under, but the coops are still operating. It says a lot about the model, but it says a lot more about the people,” he said.

There are electric co-ops in 47 states (all but Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts, and lawmakers in Massachusetts passed a law prohibiting electric co-ops), and 83 percent of all U.S. counties, with 37 million members, over 60,000 employees, and over 7,000 directors, he said.

Just as former Kauai Electric and current KIUC employees sometimes go abroad to help members of fellow co-ops rebuild after disasters, there are some 10,000 linemen from other co-ops working to help restore power to parts of Mississippi ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, he noted.

Some 85 percent of Mississippi residents get their power from operators of electric co-ops, and 80 percent of co-op electrical infrastructure was destroyed or damaged by Katrina, he said.

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