Nathan Simpson of Dutch Boy Landscaping on Nov. 14, 2019, installs colored lights on the tree by Homer Electric Association in Homer, Alaska. The big tree by HEA is one of Homer’s landmark holiday decorated trees. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Nathan Simpson of Dutch Boy Landscaping on Nov. 14, 2019, installs colored lights on the tree by Homer Electric Association in Homer, Alaska. The big tree by HEA is one of Homer’s landmark holiday decorated trees. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Three candidates vie for HEA District 3 board seat

Residents of the lower Kenai Peninsula have their pick of three candidates to represent them on the Homer Electric Association Board of Directors during this election cycle.

Ballots were sent to HEA members this month. Mail-in ballots must be received by 5 p.m. on May 6 in order to be counted. Members can only vote for the candidates in their own district. District 3 covers Kasilof and south to Kachemak Bay.

The three candidates running for election to represent District 3 on the board are Troy Jones, Pete Kinneen and incumbent board member Eugene “Jim” Levine. The Homer News requested an interview with each candidate. Jones was out of the area and unable to participate in an interview by the time the newspaper went to press.

Levine was an HEA board member from 2009-14, and served again from 2016 to present. He has served as the board’s deputy secretary and is currently the co-chair of the Renewable Energy Committee, which he helped start and served as the first chairman for.

A project manager with Jay-Brandt General Contractors in Homer, Levine also has accreditation for Credentialed Cooperative Director from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. His past projects have included managing construction of the Kodiak Electric Association office building, the construction of the Kodiak Ultra Violet Water Filtration Plant, and working as an engineering manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Jones has run for a spot on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in the past. He and his wife, Linda, own East Road Services, Inc., which they started in 1990. Jones has worked with HEA in the past as a field supervisor on the Bradley Lake Transmission Line Clearing Project, he wrote in his candidate resume.

“This was all done with the oversight of engineers from the Bechtel Corp.,” he wrote. “Our company, ERS, worked with Homer Electric Association to do extensive flood repair work at the Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Plant and dam areas.”

Kinneen owns Storage Condominiums of Alaska, with units in Homer, Anchor Point, Soldotna and Seward. He worked in the past with Erosion Control of Alaska, which made and installed erosion control devices. In this job, Kinneen wrote in his candidate resume that he worked daily with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Alaska Department of Transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies.

Kinneen has served at executive director of the nonprofit organization Environmental Recycling Inc., and on the boards of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and Arctic Bike Club.

All three candidates mentioned in their resumes the importance of cost savings where it comes to the prices HEA users are experiencing.

“My main goal is to understand the cost to our members,” Jones wrote in his resume. “To understand the balance sheet and have conversations about how to lower the cost of electricity to our members. With HEA announcing a rate increase in April, now is the time to look at the financials. We need to understand with the decrease in operating revenue and increase in maintenance and operating costs (per the newsletter February 28, 2020) how we can effectively make changes in the cost instead of passing these costs on to the members. Also, HEA is always looking for other ideas for energy, but I believe a business owner who understands financials on a large scale, should be a part of that conversation.”

Reliability of the resource is important to Kinneen, and he believes that’s something that can be accomplished through higher utilization of renewable energy sources and more creative ways of organizing grids that link electricity users together.

“Everybody wants lower costs to their bills,” he said. “They want more reliable or fewer outages, and they would like a cleaner environment. That’s the trifecta of all of it.”

Kinneen pointed to the falling costs of batteries for storing renewable energy power as an indicator that using renewable sources such as solar and wind power is becoming more affordable.

“What’s always been the hold up between fossil fuels and renewable energy has been not the production … the problem has always been, how do you store it and have to ready to deliver on a … controlled basis?” he said. “That’s been the weak link.”

Kinneen said that as the cost of storing renewable energy continues to go down, the cost of delivering electricity via renewable energy means will be more on par with what it costs to do it with fossil fuels.

When it comes to saving money, Kinneen talked about wanting to utilize micro grids where possible, rather than hook up a remote power user to a the main grid. The situation he described is one in which a remote user like a fish processor or remote tourism business sets up a small plant using renewable energy, like solar, with a battery for power storage.

“By putting in different micro grids, you can improve the quality of delivery even on the grid,” Kinneen said.

To extend an existing grid to a remote user and maintain the needed transmission lines is incredibly expensive, he said.

HEA purchased a large battery system from Tesla, the electric car company, and plans to install it at the power plant in Soldotna. The battery system is meant to provide backup power to the utility’s grid and can provide power for two hours before it needs to be recharged. As Levine explained, when there is an interruption of power from Anchorage to the peninsula, HEA has to run both its plants in Nikiski and Soldotna in order to produce its own backup power while disconnected from the larger grid. This costs extra money.

The battery system will be used in place of one of those two peninsula plants. If the transmission from Anchorage to the peninsula is interrupted, the batteries would automatically kick in and HEA would only have to run the Nikiski plant, Levine said.

Levine also touted a move toward more renewable energy, specifically saying he thinks it can be used to help lower customer costs. HEA has an overall budget of about $100 million, Levine said, $30 million of which is used for fuel for natural gas.

“There’s a huge place for savings if we could produce renewable energy instead and not use gas,” he said.

Another project that has resulted in some savings is an addition that was put on to the plant in Nikiski, Levine said. The plant was upgraded with what’s called a combined cycle addition, Levine said, that uses the steam coming off the plant turbines to produce more power to put back into the turbine. It provides an additional 18 megawatts of power for roughly the same amount of gas, he said.

Levine did acknowledge the recent increase in HEA rates in April. It’s a tough time for rates to be going up, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. Levine pointed out that the board had set those rates back in November 2019.

Another reason for increased rates is that HEA started a new contract in January, Levine wrote in a later email, which is higher than the old contract.

“We used to use the other supplier but they are gone, so we now have only one supplier of natural gas in Cook Inlet and we really do not have much of a say in how much they charge,” Levine wrote. “Prices in Cook Inlet are (three times) higher than the lower 48. Which is another reason it is so important to find alternate means of producing power, preferably using our local natural resources.”

Levine also touted the Independent Light project, which encourages users to conserve how much power they use now that HEA no longer has a “take or pay” contract with Chugach Electric Association. He said HEA board members have explored the possibility of having a developer come in and put a solar farm on the HEA system, with HEA paying it back by purchasing the electricity from them.

“Because, again, that’s the sort of, how can we leverage our limited resources the best?” Levine said.

In his bid for the board seat, Kinneen said there’s a need for more robust communication between the HEA administration and its members. Kinneen previously managed a blog called “Alaska Root Cellar” for the Anchorage Daily News in which he interacted with readers. He suggested implementing something similar for HEA to better communicate with its members.

“Energy demand is going up,” Kinneen said. “… But the new energy demand is being met by non-fossil fuels. And that is a very big deal, and it’s an opportunity for us HEA owners to take a look at this with fresh eyes and see how we can make the transition into cleaner, cheaper electricity.”

Seats are also up for election in Districts 1 and 2 for the HEA board. James Duffield II of Kenai is running against Erik Hendrickson of Kenai for District 1, while Charles Rudstrom of Soldotna is running unopposed for District 2.

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