Archive for Wednesday, March 14, 2001

District to ponder change in utility charges

March 14, 2001

Utility rates have been an electrifying issue over the last two years in Baldwin, and the shock hasn't gone away. The Baldwin school board considered the impact of electric rates Monday night when offered a new rate plan. Board members will think about the rate before deciding.

The city has looked into various ways to get dependable electric power, but the bottom line is that the city has to raise $2.3 million to meet the 2001 electric budget. That calls for a rate increase no matter what the city does or doesn't do to improve service.

Rates haven't increased in 10 years. That's the good news. The bad news is that the increase comes at a time when taxes are high, other utility rates have gone ballistic, and the school district has a major capital improvement plan to consider.

Electric rates were raised by the city council in December. Monthly residential service fees for electricity are up $3, and the cost per kilowatt hour increased 1.3 cents; this will generate about $265,000. The business service is up $7, and the cost per kilowatt hour increased 1 cent; this will generate about $718,000

Baker University, which has a different rate base, will see an increase of 0.77 cents per kwh and the demand charge will raise 70 cents; this will generate about $357,000.

The school district had hoped the city would give it a break, similar to the university's rate schedule. It won't happen. But the school district has been given the choice to be put on a demand meter or continue to be charged the residential fee.

Being on a demand meter means the district gets a lower rate but it is measured on a higher usage base. The highest usage sets the utilization for the year.

On a demand schedule, the cost of electricity comes in two parts: actual consumption plus a fee for demand for the year. The highest consumption during a one-hour period over 365 days determines the rate charged. This is how the city is charged by its electric suppliers, so there's little the city can do by itself to reduce demand. Every electricity consumer in town has to make smart power decisions if the cost of electricity for the city is to go down.

"You flip a switch," said Larry Paine, city administrator, to the board, "you make a purchase decision." That decision not only affects the consumer's individual power bill but what the city is charged.

Baker set four new peaks during July and August, and the school district set two new peaks.

"We charge 80 percent of peak value," said Paine, "and that goes for the entire year."

Over the course of 24 hours as all electrical devices are turned on by one customer, a demand is created on the electric system. If everyone begins using all of their electrical devices, the system becomes overloaded and a brownout results.

"It's like water pressure," Paine said. "You can only get so much water through a one-inch pipe."

A drop in water pressure is equivalent to an electrical brownout. A demand meter measures electric consumption that's the equivalent to the pressure of water in a water line.

"There's a definite 'drop in pressure' when all the HVAC (heating and air-conditioning) units come on every morning," he said. "You can see the pull when all those motors start." One helpful solution is to replace the motors with soft-start motors, which means they begin with slow revolutions and come up to speed over five to 20 seconds.

To price electricity, the higher the consumer goes on a demand system the more they pay. This encourages conservation. It forces the consumer to make smart power purchases throughout the day.

So it will pay for the school district to look for cost-savings measures to reduce electric consumption. To that end, the school board is talking with two engineering firms that want to complete energy audits and recommendations for the schools to identify ways to reduce consumption, especially at peak times, such as during the hot weather in August and September.

"Something is inherently wrong with the high school system," said Supt. James White.

The high school uses more electricity than all the other schools combined because the HVAC system runs both heating and air-conditioning units at the same time to balance the air temperature in the building.

Board member Curtis Trarbach asked if the board is confident the city is offering the district its best deal.

"If we had a break in our rate," board president Ed Schulte said, "other city users would see an increase in theirs to make up the difference. But if anyone deserves a decrease the schools do. We're a public institution and serve the entire community."

Terry McKinney, Baldwin City utility director, has been looking at the school buildings and talking with Supt. White. The city, while not giving the district a rate decrease, is allowing the district to make use of McKinney's engineering expertise free of charge to find ways to reduce costs. The school board has invited McKinney to sit in on the meetings with two engineering firms next week.

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