Commission Meeting 7-27-2021: Fiber expansion and subscriber growth continue to progress

Fiber crews continue expanding Grant PUD's fiber-optic network to customers throughout the remainder of Grant County. Commissioners heard during Tuesday's report that construction efforts are on schedule to see four additional areas completed by the end of the year. Once complete, a total of 19 of the 40 pre-defined expansion areas will be finished.

Approximately 80% of Grant PUD customers in the county currently have access to the fiber-optic network.

As expansion continues, Senior Manager of Wholesale Fiber, Russ Brethower, shared that one of the challenges the department continues to work through is the lead time needed to secure materials. He said fiber-optic cable currently has as much as a one-year lead time before it can be delivered.

"It is an international problem," Brethower said of demand for fiber-optic materials Grant PUD needs to expand the network.

Although demand for materials is high, the department has the product they need to complete the 2021 projects as well as a portion of the fiber cable needed for the 2022 build-out efforts. The remainder of the cable for next year's expansion work has been ordered and is expected to be on-site early next year.

The number of new subscribers using the network also continues to grow rapidly. Through the end of June, more than 2,000 new customers have connected to the network in 2021.

Brethower reported that the year-to-date "take rate" – the percentage of users with access to the fiber network connecting via one of the independent service providers – is at nearly 66% and well on pace to achieve the targeted yearly goal of 67%.

Commissioner Tom Flint said seeing a 66% take rate is exciting and he is "thrilled" about the continued growth in the percentage of customers using the network. "It gives me goose bumps to think about that from where we started."

The project contractor, North Sky Communications, has been working on the 40-area expansion project since 2019. The build-out efforts have cost nearly $28 million since then.

Project Manager of Grant PUD's Fiber Network, Jeremy Conner said that he anticipates the aerial and underground construction costs to both come down on a per mile basis for the remaining expansion efforts. One aspect leading to this anticipated result is that crews will be working in more remote settings where it is easier to use specialized equipment that allows for longer runs of underground fiber to be installed during the construction process.

Read the full report on pages 17-35 of the commission packet and hear the discussion beginning at 45:00 of the commission audio.

Second-quarter retail energy sales up

Retail energy sales, April through June, were 20 average megawatts higher than budgeted — a 5.4% increase — for $52.7 million in revenue, up $2.7 million from the budget.

Energy usage ended the quarter above budget in residential (Rate Schedule 1), commercial (Rate Schedule 2) and irrigation (Rate Schedule 3) rate classes. Much of this increase appears to be driven by warmer weather.

Large general service (Rate Schedule 7) increased nearly 61%. In March, a customer originally forecasted for Rate Schedule 14 dropped down to Rate 7, due to decrease in energy usage. Cryptocurrency customers, formerly being billed under higher-priced Rate Schedule 17 for "evolving industries," also moved to the applicable rate schedules.

Senior Financial Analyst, Amanpreet Singh said Grant PUD staff will continue to monitor power usage for industries that could meet the evolving industry requirements. Currently there are no industries that meet the criteria for the evolving industry class.

Other big usage changes stemmed from no energy use from one Ag Food Processor (Rate Schedule 16) customer due to a prior facility incident, and a more than 98% increase in energy use by a New Large Load (Rate Schedule 94) customer who grew faster than forecast.

Hear the full discussion at 1:23:45 on the commission audio. View the full presentation on pages 36-53 of the presentation materials.

Upgrades, maintenance to edge electric system to near-100% reliability

Big improvements in the works to expand the electric system for growth and catch up with needed maintenance will reduce duration and frequency of power outages around the county. But it won't happen overnight, Managing Director of Power Delivery Jeff Grizzel told commissioners.

Grant PUD Power Delivery expects to spend $52 million this year and more in coming years on improvements that include:

  • Expansion of substations and transmission
  • Catching up on much-needed maintenance of the system's six worst-performing substations and associated feeders and continuing work to reduce incidence of pole fires.
  • Improve technology for tracking electric system assets, managing work orders in the field, and managing the electric system.
  • Develop a modern program for managing assets.

"Our focus has been on load growth, but we've got to ensure the resiliency and robustness of the existing system," Grizzel said. "I'm really happy with the work that's been going on."

The work is part of a 10-year electric system improvement plan, but customers should experience more reliable service in as little as a few years, he said.

Grant PUD's goal is to ensure the electric system is serving customers 99.985% of the time. System availability has exceeded 99% over the past year and is headed in the right direction but never exceeded that target, Grizzel said.

Hear the full discussion at 2:55:15 on the commission audio. View the full presentation on pages 54-67 of the presentation materials.

Commissioners also:

Unanimously approved two contracts, one with Electrical Consultants, Inc. and the other with Schweitzer Engineer Laboratories. Each contract in the amount of $900,000. Per each contract, both companies will supply professional engineering services needed to develop an updated protection, control and communication standards to be implement on the utility's 115kV and 230kV transmission system. Development of the new systems require specialized knowledge and analytical tools that the engineering contractors can provide. Both contracts have a completion date of Dec. 31, 2025. Read more on pages 9-113 of the commission packet.

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