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Commission recap 1-26-2020: 2020 Doesn't slow fiber-optics in Grant County

Both the footprint and the number of users on Grant PUD's fiber-optic network kept growing in 2020. This according to Grant PUD's Senior Manager of Wholesale Fiber, Russ Brethower as he shared the outcomes of last year's priorities and outlined the group's goals for 2021 on Tuesday.

The impacts of COVID-19 which led to more people needing quality internet at home, combined with those customers in new expansion areas receiving access for the first time, resulted in a total of 3,458 new users subscribed to the network by years end.

That growth resulted in a "take rate," or the number of households and business utilizing the network, of nearly 63%.

A percentage Brethower says many broadband networks throughout the country would like to achieve and truly highlights the value of the network for county residents. The end of the year system-wide take rate goal for 2021 is 67%.

Total revenue from fiber-optic service ended 2020 at $10.6 million, surpassing the $9.8 million goal that was set at the beginning of 2020. The revenue is from billing private companies that utilize the network including the service-provider companies that sell internet, telephone, and cable TV services to Grant County customers over the Grant PUD fiber network.

Commissioner Tom Flint thanked the group for their continued efforts while adding that it was satisfying for him to see what an asset the high-speed fiber-optic network has turned into for the residents of Grant County. Especially considering the various challenges the network has experienced during its expansion.

This year, the group will look to complete construction through area 19 of the pre-defined expansion sequence list.This includes extending service to four new areas and finishing existing construction efforts on three areas that were part of the 2020 Construction plans. The three remaining 2020 areas have been delayed mainly due to permitting holdups or material delays. See the expansion sequence here.

Along with continued construction efforts, Brethower said the department will also focus on upgrading the hardware and other technology components of the network's core, increasing its data capacity to ensure the network is ready for the next 10-20 years.

View Brethower's presentation here on pages 69-83. Listen to the discussion starting at 3:04:21 on the commission audio.

Energy growth ends the year below budget

Retail loads were 8.9% below budget for Grant PUD in 2020, due to slower-then-expected growth in energy demand – load growth – and COVID-19 impacts.

Loads came in at 566 average megawatts, lower than the budgeted 621 average megawatts. The shortfall resulted in retail revenue declining from the budgeted $221.05 million to the actual $205.86 million (before accounting adjustments).

Residential and irrigation outperformed their budget forecasts from October through December, while net commercial and industrial loads came in below forecast. Much of the variance in the industrial rate category came from industrial customers moving between rate classes as their power use varied.

Rate Schedule 17 for "evolving industry" customers currently includes only cryptocurrency mining firms. Energy use declined from approximately 22 average megawatts in February 2020 to a low of 0.6 average megawatts in November 2020. In December, Rate Schedule 17 loads increased to 1.4 average megawatts following an increase in the market value of the primary cryptocurrency, Bitcoin.

See the full report on pages 20-30 of the presentation materials. Hear the discussion at 1:25:41 on the commission audio.

COVID and weather challenged Power Delivery crews

Power Delivery ended a COVID-challenged year with advances in a host of projects to improve system capacity and reliability despite COVID- and weather-related challenges, the operating unit's Managing Director, Jeff Grizzel, told commissioners.

Highlights of 2020 include:

  • An improvement in safety culture, which has reduced accidents and increased awareness of safe operation.
  • Launch of DesignBuild 2, a collection of 10 projects to expand system capacity and reliability, including more substations and transmission.
  • Projects that use technology to improve efficiency, including new digital geographic information system mapping.
  • Line crews worked multiple Fridays to replace insulators on poles prone to pole fires.

Goals in 2021 include:

  • Create and begin to implement an "Electric System Reliability Improvement Plan."
  • Put an asset management plan into place to support efforts to reduce the number of outages and shorten outage times.
  • Continue work on DesignBuild 2 and work to implement the geographic information system mapping and other tech improvements launched in 2020.
  • Streamline customer work-order and outage-reporting processes.

Capital spending will end the year at $23.03 million, well below the $37.76 million budget, due to COVID-related and other delays in projects. The labor and operations-and-maintenance budget of $34.08 million will end the year $36.42 million, the overspending driven by pole fire/storm-related overtime and an increase in trouble reports.

Targets for system reliability and outage duration ended the year slightly short of targets. Projects planned are expected to boost performance in the future to meet or exceed targets.

"I'm really proud of the District for the way we've responded to COVID and protected our employees," Grizzel told commissioners. "We've had a few positive cases (of COVID), but it hasn't crippled us. We've been able to deliver on our mission statement — getting power to our customers."

See the full report on pages 38-54 of the presentation materials. Hear the discussion at 1:25-1:44 and 2:36-3:04 on the commission audio.

Commissioners also:

— Agreed that starting March 9 the "Staff Reports" section of the commission meeting will begin at 9:30 a.m. instead of 10 a.m. The change will give staff presenters extra time to finish their morning round of presentation before the noon lunch break.

— Heard recognitions from General Manager and CEO Kevin Nordt for the line teams who traveled recently to help their colleagues at Snohomish PUD and Avista following a Jan. 14 wind and rainstorm that extensively knocked out power in those areas. "Our line crews always do a good job. They're always dedicated to getting the lights back on, whether it's here or at home," Nordt said. Hear the recognition at 15:40 on the commission audio.

— Heard a recognition from General Manager and CEO Kevin Nordt of the successful collaboration between Grant PUD managers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union on an agreement to require twice-weekly antigen testing of designated Grant PUD employees to further reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Testing began Jan. 27. Hear the recognition at 18:00 on the commission audio.

— Commissioner unanimously approved a change order to a contract with AVANTech increasing the not-to-exceed contract amount by $1,316,000 and extending the contract completion date to Dec. 31, 2021. Under the contract AVANTech provides Grant PUD with a variety of personnel support on a temporary basis, primarily for capital projects to fill short-term needs.See more on pages 7-22 of the commission packet.

— Heard from Grant PUD's external financial auditor, Moss Adams as they outlined their group's plans and objectives for conducting an audit of Grant PUD's 2020 financials. The financial audit, which includes a review of internal controls and compliance over financial reporting is anticipated to be completed in April.A final report will be provided to the commission when the audit is finalized. Hear the discussion at 1:45:07 on the commission audio and see the presentation on pages 55-68 of the commission packet