VT biz

Thu Aug 20 2009

Q&A: Avram Patt General Manager of Washington Electric Cooperative

Avram Patt, 58, has been General Manager of Washington Electric Cooperative of East Montpelier, Vermont since 1997. He also served on WEC’s Board of Directors for eight years prior to that. In addition to managing WEC’s distribution system serving over 10,000 meters, he is responsible for the company’s power supply, including its conversion to renewable energy, as well as its long-standing focus on residential energy efficiency programs.

Prior to becoming General Manager, Patt held a number of positions in public administration, most recently Director of Vermont’s Office of Economic Opportunity, which administers a variety of anti-poverty programs delivered by non-profit agencies throughout the state, including the state’s weatherization program. In the early 1980s, he was executive director of the Central Vermont Transportation Association, where he helped develop the area’s rural public transportation system.

He has also been president of the Northeast Association of Electric Cooperatives (four states), a member of the Regional Power Supply Committee, Northeast Public Power Association, chair of the Region I Resolutions Committee (12 states), National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and member of NRECA’s national Resolutions Committee. He was also chair of the “E-21” Legislative Committee, coordination and information-sharing group of government affairs representatives of all Vermont utilities.

Patt is a 1972 graduate of Goddard College, as well as the singer and drummer for the Vermont Yiddish dance band, the Nisht Geferlach Klezmer Band. He notes that Yiddish was his first language in his childhood Bronx, NY home, and Avram is Abraham in that language. He and his wife, Amy Darley, live in Worcester, VT. They have two grown children, one of whom was married the week before this interview.

VBM: I understand that the electrical co-op here is quite historical. It would be a good place to start with, the history of the co-op.

Patt: The co-op was founded in 1939. That was the era when the rural electrification movement was started as part of the New Deal. A huge part of rural America did not have electricity and no one was intending to serve them at that point because it simply didn't make business sense from a profit point of view. So the co-ops were started with federal financing help in that era. Both co-ops in Vermont, Washington Electric and Vermont Electric, started up in 1938 in 1939. It was a group of about 200 households, a large number of them farms in the Calais and East Montpelier area, that formed the co-op.

Because of the demand the co-op quickly spread into other parts of rural Washington County and then Orange County and a part of Caledonia County. So we serve all or parts of 41 towns now.

VBM: How many customers do you have?

Patt: A little over 10,000. We are the most rural and the least dense utility still, so the reason for us being formed is still the same. We have a little over eight meters per mile of line. Most of those are residential, we have almost no commercial or industrial load, and no large commercial and industrial load at all.

In the pioneering days of the co-op, we have a very rich history. Gov. Aiken, at the time, came to both the first pole setting on a farm in East Montpelier, and then when the juice started flowing it was out of two diesel generators in what is now our member's service department that you came in through. I have a copy of his typewritten speech from December 1939 and it's actually quite a radical speech. He was a very strong supporter of both co-op rural electrification and public power in general. At the time Vermont's natural resource generation hydropower had been developed and sold out-of-state. He talks in his speech about the irony of a bunch of farmers having to get diesel engines in order to get electricity, and that we would never again allow something like this to happen. It was a strong speech.

VBM: Those hydro dams on the Connecticut River were built decades before the co-op was started.

Patt: The dams had been built and the power was being sold down river. The co-op sticks to a lot of the founding principles in that it is democratically governed and is basically to serve our members and our communities.

VBM: Exactly how does that work? How does the cooperative function?

Patt: The cooperative has a Board of Directors, and we have a very active and very involved Board of Directors. The board is elected annually by the membership, there are nine people on the board and they are elected three each year. There have been years in the past where there were controversies among the membership and it really got fought out in the election process. There was a period in the 1980s where there was a real struggle to try to change the direction of the co-op to move it toward energy efficiency and eventually toward renewables.

It was a period when we had a split board. They were very hotly contested elections, campaigns, direct mail by both sides to the membership. I served on the board for eight years, and the year I was elected was the year that the majority flipped towards the more change oriented group. But it was a split board for a few more years after that. We changed management at that time and I would say at that point we set the co-op on its more recent course of being a real pioneer in first energy efficiency and more recently on the renewables stuff.

VBM: How does that work? What exactly do you do with your members to help them with energy efficiency?

Patt: We embraced energy efficiency, which was then called demand side management, at a time that the regulators were telling utilities that they had to do it. Most were resisting it or doing it halfheartedly. We embraced it. This was before Efficiency Vermont was started. At that time utilities were mandated to run their own programs. We ran programs set up for our residential customers, which is mostly who we are, and we worked out separate programs for the farms, the businesses, and all the schools on our lines got efficiency at that point. Since Efficiency Vermont was established and funding mechanisms were set up for it, a lot of that work has been moved over to what they do on a statewide basis. We've continued to, first of all, publicize the need for energy efficiency as well as look for ways that we can get more of our people involved than the state average. We really talk about it in our newsletter and on our website.

With renewables, in the late 1980s we got the rights to build a small hydro plant at the Wrightsville reservoir, which is right on the Montpelier/Middlesex line. It's an old Civilian Conservation Corps Project off the New Deal, a flood control dam built after the flooding in 1927. The hydro wasn't installed in it until the 1980s. That's a small plant.

Our biggest opportunity started to come not too long after I became manager. We had been part of the contract with Vermont Yankee since the 1970s. That contract was going to be ending in 2002.

Coincidently that was when the Vermont Yankee contract was sold but that was a separate thing. Vermont Yankee was a third of our power supply. Our board was not interested in continuing with nuclear power and we were looking to see how much of our future supply we could get through renewables and at what cost. We have high electric rates because of the rural density issue and our board was very sensitive to that. We discovered landfill methane as a source of generation. We ended up buying what turned into a four year contract from a landfill in Connecticut that almost entirely replaced our Vermont Yankee supply for four years, which gave us an opportunity to look at landfill methane hear in Vermont.

We built a plant in Coventry, which is the largest landfill in the state up near Newport. The plant opened in July 2005, expanded once in 2007, and the second expansion just went online in June. It is now supplying about two thirds of all our electricity and it's our lowest cost electricity. We discovered landfill methane, among renewable sources, was cheap and had baseload qualities like a nuclear plant. In other words, it runs almost all the time as opposed to wind and solar, which are intermittent.

VBM: Do you generate electricity right there at the landfill?

Patt: Right there. A landfill has to collect the methane that forms from the decomposition of the waste. It's required by federal environmental regulations to collect it so there is a complex collection system built into a landfill as it's being filled. If you drive by a landfill, typically you're going to see a big pipe or more than one pipe sticking out of the ground burning off the methane. Methane is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So burning it creates carbon dioxide, but that is better than letting the methane into the atmosphere.

All you do at a landfill generating plant is essentially to take the methane and run a pipe into a plant and run generators with it first. So we're burning the same methane, we have no additional environmental impact besides what was already there, and we're creating a low-cost baseload source of electricity.

VBM: So how does that get here?

Patt: That is outside of our territory by a few towns, but we built a line that connects it to the VELCO transmission grid, which is what feeds our system like all the other utilities. It gets fed into one of their transmission sub-stations in Irasburg. Then we take delivery of it at our substation in our area.

Obviously, with electricity in general, the electrons generated there are not the electrons that come out of a wall socket here. Once it's on the grid then it's really an accounting transaction. We are essentially buying it from ourselves. Let's say it's a private developer who developed that methane plant. They would record how much electricity they put on the grid on our behalf, and we record how much got taken off on our behalf. Then we pay ourselves for it. We’re also taking 10% of the First Wind wind farm in Sheffield, which is the first major wind farm approved by the Public Service Board in this state. Sheffield is in the Northeast Kingdom. There was another wind farm in the Northeast Kingdom that the board did not approve, it was going to be on an old military installation. That was a very small one. This is a 40 MW plant that a private company, First Wind out of Massachusetts, got approval for. That's supposed to be online by the end of 2010.

Some of the same controversies and local groups that did not want to see it happen got played out in Sheffield. But the Public Service Board really bent over backwards to establish what criteria they would be using in the review of wind farms and how they would deal with the aesthetic issue, which is a big one. I think that probably set the standard by which they'll be looking at other projects.

There's another wind project on the Massachusetts border, adjacent to the one in Searsburg built by Green Mountain Power.

VBM: How did they address the aesthetic issue? Are these the smaller wind towers?

Patt: They are 400-footers. They are very large. There is no question that they have an aesthetic impact and they change the landscape. The Public Service Board has an obligation to weigh everything and determine whether it's in the public interest or not. They decided that it was. In Sheffield there was actually a town vote with the majority in favor of this project.

VBM: How many towers are going up there?

Patt: I think 20 towers. Wind farms in Vermont are, by definition, going to be small in comparison to some out in Texas or the Dakotas, which is where the huge wind resources are in this country.

VBM: I remember driving through a town and Southern California a decade or so ago where there were literally hundreds upon hundreds of wind generators. They were much smaller, but there were a lot of them.

Patt: Probably in Altamont. That was one of the early wind farms, and the towers were much smaller.

VBM: Personally, I find some of these towers on the mountain tops aesthetically stunning, though I know it's a real matter of personal taste.

Patt: We decided as a co-op that we were going to stick our necks out in support of the Sheffield project. We did a fair amount of due diligence about the site and the developer. It was a company that we felt good about. Once we determined that, I went to a lot of public meetings in the Northeast Kingdom and we participated in the debate and tried not to allow the debate to become one of outside corporate abusers of the environment. We said, no we are a local consumer-owned utility and we're buying the power.

As it turns out, the other two buyers are Vermont Electric Co-Op, in whose territory the project actually is, and the Burlington Electric Department, which is also consumer owned.

VBM: I’m a newspaper writer, and I covered some of the meetings in the Londonderry area with regard to a wind farm proposed for down there. What I found interesting was the misinformation that many people accept as true. Someone told a story they heard about a wind generator in the Bennington/ Manchester area where the propeller had broken off and then launched a quarter-mile into the village. I mean, it was patently untrue and didn't make any sense, but there were people willing to believe it.

Patt: They move too slowly for that to happen. In New York State, which has a lot of wind farms, there was an accident where a tower collapsed. But it collapsed in place, though if someone had been there right at the base it could have been catastrophic. But the propellers turn slowly, it's not like they can fly off. It is a power plant, so accidents can happen. It's a very large construction project and it has its impacts, there is no denying that.

VBM: I heard that there was talk of putting one in a small town near Rutland.

Patt: Actually there is a Vermont-based company proposing a fairly large project near there. I don't think they’ve filed anything formal with the Public Service Board, but they've started having public meetings in that area. It spans a few different towns and I think they've already scaled back the project. The opposition is organized and they're bringing up similar issues as most farms we've seen in Vermont.

VBM: I enjoy the writings of Amory Lovins, and about 10 years ago Bernie Sanders brought him in to speak in Burlington and I attended the meeting. They were talking then about Vermont being able to "mine the skies" with the use of wind technology.

Patt: Of course. There is an interest now also in what is kind of one step down in what some people are calling community-scaled wind projects. These are larger than the kinds of turbines an individual might put up, but it is more on an intermediate scale. There are a lot of communities interested in that, there are a lot of town energy committees that have formed. They just tend to be more expensive, and you obviously have to have a good site that is somewhat near a transmission line, and that's why there are only a limited number of sites in Vermont that are going to see commercial scale wind projects.

VBM: I’ve interviewed a few, but in total how many power companies are there in Vermont?

Patt: There are 20 or 21. I'm not sure, because a couple of tiny companies have been absorbed by larger ones. There are the two investor-owned companies, the two co-ops, and 15 municipal utilities ranging in size from Burlington Electric, which is a big one, and the rest are all small town and village. They are mostly in northern Vermont, the only one in southern Vermont is Ludlow Electric.

VBM: I've read that there are parts of Vermont that didn't get electricity well into the 1960s.

Patt: Yeah, in the Northeast Kingdom and probably a couple of other pockets.

VBM: Where do you rank in that list of companies as far as size?

Patt: We are the fifth-largest utility in terms of the number of meters, although the next one up is Vermont Electric Co-Op and while we have a little over 10,000 meters they have about 30,000, so there is a big jump. They used to have about 15,000, but then they acquired the territory of a private company called Citizens Utility that served along the northern border of Vermont from the islands all the way to Canaan. Citizens had a very bad reputation in Vermont, the regulators almost kicked them out at one point. In the end they wanted to leave so they sold their territory to VEC.

VBM: With the work that you've done as far as energy efficiency what type of results are you seeing from that?

Patt: Well, on the residential, our members use about 550 to 560 kWh on average per month. That's a bit below the statewide average which is 580 to 590. It has been below the state average since we really did a lot of work on our own, before Efficiency Vermont. You also have to keep in mind that in a rural area our residences are almost entirely single-family, stand-alone homes. There is a lot of older housing. In a village or city area, your residential meters are going to include a lot of rental units. The same building that we serve with one meter will have four or five apartments in it if it's in a town or village. So they tend to use less electricity.

I think our members use less energy and are much more conscious of their energy use and that the Co-Op has had something to do with educating them and helping them with that. We've emphasized for a number of years, because our rates were high, that people pay bills, not rates
because if you just focus on the rate per kilowatt hour and not on how many kilowatt hours you use, you get the wrong picture. Your bill is both a matter of how much you use and the fact that our rate structure is structured to provide some incentives and benefits to the low users. The first kilowatt hours you buy are at the lowest rate and after that they become more expensive.

VBM: What are the key things that a typical, older Vermont home can do to save energy? What will have the biggest effect on their electric bill?

Patt: We’ve been emphasizing in recent years that even though we are an electric company, in most homes in Vermont that is not necessarily the largest use of energy. The largest energy use is usually what you heat with and then maybe your hot water. If you were to look at your house comprehensively in terms of electricity, obviously things like getting high efficiency bulbs help. The majority of our members still use electricity for hot water which is more expensive than using propane. For a number of years we really discouraged the use of electric hot water heaters. The other big load in every home is your refrigerator. If your refrigerator is 10 years old or older it is worth it to replace it even if it is still running. Replace it with a new Energy Star refrigerator, as long as you are not at the same time sizing up. If you get the same size you will use maybe a third as much electricity as the older one used.

The other big thing, and some homes it's not that big but in others it is, is what is called phantom load. People have all of these electronic devices plugged in and on all the time. There are simple and convenient ways to plug your TVs and monitors and audio and computers into conveniently located power strips with an off switch. If you have all of your home entertainment equipment in the living room just plugged into the wall, it's staying warm all the time. It's doing that so that it can instantaneously turn on when you decide that you want to watch TV and you press the remote button. You could just as easily turn it off for the night and then turn it back on when you are going to watch. We also try to get people aware that when these large flatscreen televisions are staying warm all the time that's like running a 75 W bulb 24/7.

In terms of energy use in general, before I had this job I worked in state government and ran the office that administers the low income weatherization program. So I'm very familiar with the home weatherization, insulation and air sealing. It's going to tend to save on your heating fuel first but almost everybody uses electricity in their heating system for circulation, for blowers and pumps. So if you use less fuel, you will also tend to use less electricity.

We did that to our home last year. It was something I had put off for years and it was like, why? It's made a huge difference to have a professional energy audit. To lower income people the weatherization program is free. For other people there are incentives and low-cost financing is available.

VBM: I know that SEVCA has a great program in my part of the state. Considering that you decided to not buy power from Vermont Yankee, what are your views about the nuclear plant’s request for a license extension in a few years?

Patt: The Co-Op has no position. A number of our board members, and myself personally, have a history of being anti-nuclear for safety reasons. A lot of people have forgotten, but in the mid-1980s in the early days of the screening process for a high level nuclear waste repository that ended up with the Yucca Mountain site being picked, early on the plan had been to have an East and a West site. Vermont was on the screening list. The granite formations in Vermont were on the screening list, and one of them was Spruce Mountain, which you can see right outside this window. I live literally at the foot of the mountain. There was some really significant statewide organizing around that issue in the summer of 1985, and that was my first direct experience with energy issues.

Our preference, and the reason we got out of nuclear power to begin with, was that we'd like to find a way to not have to rely on that. In terms of the relicensing of an existing nuclear plant, that's a somewhat different issue than building new plants, and I think that's why the Co-Op, as a Co-Op has not taken a position.

VBM: What do you see coming down the road that will help us to meet our energy needs in the future?

Patt: I think, in Vermont, that we could meet our future needs in the long run, though it may take a while to get there, with a combination of both large-scale and smaller scale renewables. A lot of people are very interested in community wind power, reestablishing some hydro facilities and that kind of thing. Home-based solar and wind also. I think we can get a fairly significant amount of power that way, though I don't think we can get it all. I think we also need your large-scale commercial type facilities like a few wind farms, some biomass that's combined, that is co-generated. As in using wood chips for fuel and at the same time having it generate electricity.

I imagine that Vermont will probably need to rely on some amount of power coming from Hydro-Québec for a period of time. We are part of the Vermont Hydro-Québec contract right now, so our supply expires the same time as everyone else. We don't know if we'll need any of that or not. But if you look at the state's portfolio you have these two huge gaps coming up with the end of the license for Vermont Yankee and the end of the contract with Hydro-Québec. If you read VPIRG’s report from a couple of years ago about where we are going to get our future power from, they acknowledge that some amount of reliance on Hydro-Québec in the foreseeable future is likely.

VBM: Do you think that Vermont missed an opportunity when it passed up buying the hydroelectric dam system on the Connecticut River?

Patt: Absolutely. I think that by the time the authority that the legislature had set up, the body to make a bid, I think it was late in the game and the price looked high at that point. As a public entity they were reluctant to get into a bidding war with the market. Given our founding and looking back to the days of George Aiken, I think that if there had been the political will early on among the governors and legislatures of not just Vermont but also New Hampshire and perhaps Massachusetts and Connecticut even, to create some sort of public entity, I think that we would have all done better. We actually were among those a few years ago who were trying to convince people that it was worth pursuing. To have an existing set of facilities that can generate power at a stable price, to miss the opportunity to own them and to have that power sold into the market at whatever the market can bear, is a lost opportunity.

VBM: What's your personal history? Are you from this area?

Patt: I’ve lived in Vermont for 39 years. I grew up in the Bronx. I moved here to finish school. I quit school in the late 60s and decided to finish by coming to Goddard College. I had wanted to live in the country ever since I was a teenager, but I didn't know how to execute that plan. So finishing college was a pact I made with my parents. I arrived there in the spring of 1970 and I knew almost immediately I was going to stay in Vermont. My original interests and studies were in liberal arts, particularly in writing and theater.

I was a full-time member of Bread and Puppet Theater for two years when they first came to Vermont. They were in residence at Goddard. Goddard owned a farm where the troupe stayed. I was a full-time member of the troupe, toured this country and Europe and all that. My career path into management and public administration is actually tied to having learned how to drive buses and trucks while I was with the theater. That led to my getting a school bus driver's license and eventually becoming the co-executive director of the nonprofit that established the public transit system in this area. I went into state government after that.

VBM: What did you do there?

Patt: I was, for most of the time, the director of the State Office of Economic Opportunity, which at the time was a free standing division in the Agency of Human Services. I dealt with the community action agencies and other anti-poverty programs. The largest program out of that office from a dollar point of view was the weatherization program. I was in that position when I got elected to the board here. That was in 1989, I became manager here in 1997.

When I first got to Vermont I knew this was where I wanted to be. We lived in Plainfield for many years. I live in Worcester now. At a relatively young age I found myself the chair of the Plainfield board of selectmen. At least it was called the selectmen at that time! At that point I realized, whether I wanted to be or not, my roots were planted. I realized I had no desire to do anything else.

Managing a utility is not in my professional background. I had kind of a Vermont career path. I got involved in energy issues and management, nonprofit and public administration at a point in time when there was a vacancy in the manager's job here. I was appointed by the board at that point. We set a direction for energy efficiency in 2001 and had no idea how much we could accomplish. We succeeded beyond expectations by building the landfill plant.

I should mention, it's important that we sell the renewable energy certificates, which is how renewable energy is tracked in New England. We sell them in Massachusetts where they have a renewable energy portfolio standard. The utilities there are required to have X-percent of renewable energy sources. So in our own portfolio for the time being, we don't claim the landfill as renewable.

It's just a low-cost energy source, because someone in Massachusetts is claiming the renewable characteristics of it. It would be double counting otherwise. We've gotten a significant amount of revenue from that, which is why we haven't had to raise the rates in nine years. We may be the only utility, certainly in the region and maybe in the country, that hasn't had to raise rates.

The way I explain that to people and to our members, is that, as a co-op our members are benefiting wearing two different hats from this plant. They are benefiting as consumers because they have a cheap source of energy. As a co-op, they are the developer, and the developer is selling the renewable energy certificate from the plant and making money on it. That money is applied to the bottom line, so our members benefit. If the plant had been developed by a private developer and we were buying the energy, we would either be buying the energy and the developer would be selling the certificates in Massachusetts and making money, or we would be buying the certificates for an additional amount of money in order to claim the renewable characteristics of the energy.

VBM: Any future plans for the co-op?

Patt: In addition to energy efficiency and renewables, on a day-to-day basis what we do here is keep people's lights on and run a very rural distribution system. So we're doing a lot of work on information technology, systems diagnostics, electronics and taking advantage of new technology.

We are fairly high-tech for a small utility. We won't be the first in the state to adopt smart metering, which is part of what is called the smart grid. At the consumer end you're eventually going to be seeing digital meters rather than the mechanical meters. They will interface in real-time with the utility and the grid. Both you and the utility will know how much energy you’re using in real-time and not just in 30 day intervals. You may even be able to manage your load, once appliances are built with computer chips, which they will be very soon. Then you could control your energy usage even remotely, or allow your utility to. You could really take advantage of peak and off-peak prices.

Right now when someone says my bill was high, what's going on, all we can look at is 30 day interval patterns. We might see that the bill started going up dramatically four months ago and ask what happened then. The homeowner will frequently say nothing happened, although after a little bit you usually figure it out.

VBM: Like that’s when they bought the flatscreen TV.

Patt: Yes. We don't know if they have a new use that's running all the time or a new use that's running two days a month during certain hours, that's accounting for their greater use of energy. With smart metering you'll be able to know that. Everyone, including the customer, will be able to manage their usage much more wisely. We won't be the early adopter of that in Vermont, but we will do this cautiously and probably move in a few years towards that.

We also put a huge amount of work into our communication with our members. I'll leave you with a few copies of our newsletter, which we send out 10 times a year. We do some market research surveying every five years or so and the last time we did this well over 60% of our members read all or part of the newsletter. It always astonishes me. We put a lot of work into it and try to make it lively and substantive at the same time. So I think we continue to work on having a well-informed membership. In our last issue, which just came out, I wrote about the IT stuff and where we're headed. Do we need to get on Facebook and start twittering? We don't. We probably need to figure out how we're going to engage more electronically, particularly with the younger members. In the next year or so that will be a project of ours.

VBM: Anything we haven't talked about that you want included in this discussion?

Patt: We’re a cooperative and that's fundamental to who we are. Internationally among all co-ops, not just electrical co-ops, there are seven cooperative principles and we really adhere to them. If you look at what we do and what we try to be it comes from that. A couple of years ago we were doing a tour at our Coventry plant, and some people came whose family dated back to the founding of the co-op and who are also related to George Aiken, and one of them made a comment that really connected. They said that our founders would have really gotten a kick out of and been really proud of the landfill plant, even though in 1939 no one could have imagined that a dump could be a power plant. Or that a manure pile would be a power plant. But they would have seen a direct line and I think we all feel that here.

Robert Smith is a freelance writer and photographer living in Westminster, VT. He can be reached atrobfs52@yahoo.com.