At an informal public meeting with OPALCO members and the board, one islander voiced concerns based on what he called “perceptions” some people have of the organization.
These meetings, called “Tea Talks,” are organized by the OPALCO board to have casual conversations with small groups of members. Only two members of the public attended the Dec. 6 meeting at the San Juan Island Library, as well as two representatives of the media.
The commenter, an OPALCO employee who did not want to be identified, said he was concerned that OPALCO added broadband services because those affected by the last, large, county-wide outage wanted it, and not the majority of OPALCO members.
“Maybe 30, 40 people were singing the blues, then bang, we have broadband,” he said.
The outage occurred in 2013 when a CenturyLink electric cable, which runs underwater from the mainland to the San Juan Island, broke, leaving parts of the county without electricity, Internet and 911 services. Power was completely restored after 10 days. After the 2013 outage, the OPALCO board decided to use the co-op’s resources to provide Internet, phone and emergency communications services to members by “accelerating expansion” to their infrastructure, according to their November 2013 meeting minutes.
The commenter didn’t understand why OPALCO members didn’t have more input on the decision to add internet services, as well as acquire Rock Island Communications. He felt that the idea had been presented to members and they “didn’t bite.”
OPALCO, or Orcas Power and Light Cooperative, is a nonprofit cooperative, jointly owned by its members who use the electricity it provides to San Juan County. Rock Island Communications is a for-profit internet service provider, which was acquired by OPALCO in 2015.
“It feels like the board has the ball and the community doesn’t have a say,” he said. “People have given up because they feel they don’t have a voice.”
Suzanne Olson, of OPALCO’s public relations, told The Journal that historically, members vote to elect the board of directors and amend bylaws. Board member Mark Madsen said the board’s initial broadband plan in 2013 did not have a lot of member support because some thought it was expensive.
“Did that mean that members wanted a better plan or no broadband?” asked Madsen. “We took it as they wanted a better plan.”
The anonymous OPALCO employee was worried that members were bearing the cost of broadband fiber installation across the islands.
Madsen explained that there is a main electrical system, which includes fiber, on each island that uses OPALCO power. Those who live outside of it, like him, split the cost among their neighbors to run fiber from the system to their neighborhoods. Each property owner is then responsible to pay for the cable that runs from their neighborhood’s main system to their house. Nine neighborhoods in the county are under construction to add fiber, according to Rock Island’s December newsletter. Three are waiting to start construction and 23 are organizing payments to start the process. This is in addition to the 20 individual properties under construction and about 100 processing quotes to start construction.
Madsen said OPALCO’s $7.5 million loan to Rock Island was paid back last fall and the subsidiary is financially independent. OPALCO members invested $1 million of that by paying an additional $3 in monthly rates, from Jan. 1, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2016. Members do not pay for broadband in their monthly rates. They have paid for the ongoing construction of OPALCO’s electrical system, which includes fiber, since it was installed in 2000.
The citizen expressed concern about the prioritization of installing fiber over the power company’s everyday duties. OPALCO and Rock Island seem to be “tripping over each other,” he said.
Madsen admitted that adding fiber next to cable makes the infrastructure, and in turn, repairs by OPALCO and Rock Island, more complicated.
OPALCO Board President Vince Dauciunas said 80 percent of the 900 national power co-ops use fiber in their electrical systems. Fiber allows linemen to remotely access outages on tablet computers, so they can open and close circuits without going outside during storms. Madsen said about 150 power co-ops use that fiber for broadband services, like OPALCO does.
The commenter said some feared the recent changes to OPALCO’s nominating committee were to help the board select “like-minded” individuals to the board.
“We’ve always had a nominating committee, but now it’s permanent,” said Madsen. “Now they will have a longer time to look for members.”
Olson told The Journal that the board voted to expand the nominating committee from three members to nine, and increase their meeting period from three weeks to a year. The board also decided to stop the automatic nomination of board incumbents.
Bonneville Power Administration distributes power to OPALCO, which determines rates by adding BPA’s fees and the operational costs to deliver the power (like employee salaries, buildings and equipment) and dividing it by the number of members.
San Juan County residents can only receive power using OPALCO’s services or generators. Those who use the services are considered members and pay a one-time fee of $5 to join.
The next OPALCO board meeting is at 8:30 a.m., Dec. 15 at the OPALCO office at 1034 guard Street in Friday Harbor. Board meetings are open to OPALCO members. For more information, visit www.opalco.com.