Seeing my KIUC smart-meter-fee ballot in the mail today got me thinking about the one other time we went through this process — by which I mean a petition-prompted election to let members vote on something the Board had already voted on.
It was back in July 2011, and the issue was the Board's decision to hire Free Flow Power as hydroelectric consultants. Just 7,502 people voted — about a quarter of the membership — and a whopping 72 percent supported the Board.
Translation: Most members don't give a rip what KIUC is doing, and among those who do, a majority seem to trust the elected Board.
Now we're being asked if we think the Board was right to charge people who opt out of the smart meter grid fees associated with that choice. The fees are $10.27 per month, with meter switch out fees of $50.64 residential and $138.80 commercial.
Smart-meter opponents say the fees are “punishment” for opting out, and in a sense, they're right. KIUC does want everyone to have a smart meter because they were installed to create a more stable grid and manage all the solar that's coming into the system. They also allow the utility to offer us rate incentives to use electricity during the day, when it's produced by the sun, instead of at night, when it's generated by burning oil. The more people who participate in the grid, the greater the efficiency.
Luke Evslin elaborates on the rationale in his thoughtful blog, Ka Wae.
So yeah, if you're not on board for the "greater good of the grid," so to speak, you get dinged. But at least you get the chance to opt-out. The Board wasn't going to allow it, but changed its mind after some members spoke up. Very few utilities — and no other co-ops — allow opt-outs.
Smart-meter opponents say the Board is undemocratic because it never asked the members before spending $5.5 million (the feds picked up half of the $11 million tab) on the smart grid. And it's true, the Board didn't. Just like it didn't ask us if it should spend $5.5 million on the Lydgate substation. But KIUC does have to get approval from the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for all expenditures over $2.5 million. The public can participate in that process, and we're also represented by a Consumer Advocate. In still another advantage to Kauai folks, our own Mina Morita is the chair.
Yet in looking through the PUC docket on KIUC's smart grid expenditure, I found no public testimony opposing the smart grid. The application was before the PUC for nearly a full year, from October 2010 to September 2011, but no one spoke against it. And it certainly wasn't a secret. The topic was covered in numerous issues of “Currents” magazine, as well as in quarterly meetings and annual reports.
Though I can understand why people might have missed the smart grid approval — I didn't write about it for Honolulu Weekly until March 2012 — a sizable group of opponents had formed by the time the PUC took up KIUC's recent request to charge opt-out fees.
Yet only about a dozen submitted testimony to the PUC, the forum where the action went down. People complain they're shut out of the process, yet they aren't fully participating when they have a chance. Instead, they wait until it's all settled, and then launch a petition drive to try and overturn it. Or in the case of Adam Asquith, file an injunction to try and stop it.
That feels disingenuous to me. Just like it feels disingenuous for smart meter opponents to criticize KIUC for spending member money to promote a Yes vote when they're using listener-supported KKCR radio to advance a No vote. Four of the most outspoken smart meter opponents have talk shows on KKCR that give them 18 hours of prime air time monthly. That's the kind of advertising no money can buy. And who polled KKCR members to see if they were OK with turning over the talk shows to the no-fee contingent?
Though just 10 percent of KIUC's 30,000 members have opted out, I saw this baffling post on Facebook:
if we are a cooperative does the majority interest always trump the minority?
Mmm, yes. Ironically, the guy who posted it was a staunch supporter of Bill 2491, where the rallying cry was "this bill must be passed because everyone supports it!" But now, when he's clearly in the minority, the majority interest is no longer primary.
While the ballot language is strictly about fees, smart-meter opponents have brought up everything else: health, privacy, Board processes, expectations of a co-op, hurt feelings, etc, etc. All of these are highly emotional issues that can be discussed endlessly, subjectively and without resolution. By creating this venue to bitch about KIUC, opponents are attempting to turn the election into a referendum on the utility as a whole. That's because their broader agenda is to get rid of smart meters entirely, and change the management style of KIUC.
Ridding the island of smart meters ain't gonna happen, at least, not any time soon, and not without some solid proof of serious health, environmental or economic detriment. And it's most certainly not going to happen as a result of this election.
As for changing the management style of KIUC, in looking back at some of my coverage of the Free Flow election, I was reminded that Pat Gegen was among the KIUC critics. Now he's on the Board — where he's being criticized by some of his former fellow critics.
Though there's been some progress at KIUC since the 2011 vote, the utility still faces deep community distrust. Since we are a co-op, that needs to be addressed, be it through forums, task forces, rule changes, new Board members, ho`oponopono or what have you.
But this election is not about any of that. So let's push aside all the rhetoric and emotion and drama, and focus on the one and only question now before us: Was the Board right to charge people for opting out of the smart grid?