Commission recap 2-9-2021: Grant PUD projected to end 2020 below budget amid COVID impacts

— Grant PUD ended 2020 with capital and operations-and-maintenance combined spending $9.9 million below the 2020 budget of $267.7 million, as precautions required of the COVID-19 pandemic slowed expected capital and other work across the utility.

Capital spending is projected to end the year at $98.1 million, below budget by $7.2 million. COVID precautions limited access by contractors to Grant PUD facilities, delaying major projects, including a secondary embankment on the Yakima County side of Priest Rapids Dam and turbine/generator rehabilitation in that dam's powerhouse.

On the operations and maintenance side, COVID impacts resulted in reduced spending for travel and training, fish and hatchery services, fuel, equipment and construction services, as projects have been delayed or travel eliminated by switch to virtual meetings. Spending increased on janitorial services for deep cleaning to utility buildings and safety expenses, including personal protective equipment.

Full-time regular employee headcount is projected to be 11 employees over the budgeted 633 for 2020, Nolan said. This includes five part-time employees who converted to full time. Full-time regular headcount in 2019 was 606 employees.

Grant PUD could continue to feel the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic through the early part of 2021, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Bishop told commissioners.

NOTE: The budget-to-actuals 2020 figures used in Tuesday's presentation contained an error that overstated some labor expenses by $7.2 million, Senior Manager of Financial Planning & Analysis John Mertlich told commissioners. The error was discovered too late to be corrected before Tuesday's meeting. The corrected presentation is now available at the Grant County PUD webpage.

Here the full discussion beginning at 40:50 on the commission audio. See the full report on pages 1-9 of the presentation materials.

Grant PUD points to precision ag in pitch for fiber funding

Grant County farmers' growing reliance on digital crop monitoring applications and other high-tech farming methods is part of Grant PUD's efforts to seek state and federal grants to fund continued expansion of the utility's wholesale fiber-optic network.

Grant PUD was awarded $1.6 million in state grant and loan funds last year for fiber expansion and outlined programs that could, if successful, contribute to achieving the District goal to seek funding that will offset the cost of the expansion of the District's wholesale fiber network.

Farmers across the country, including Grant County, are turning to "precision ag" techniques for real-time field monitoring via digital applications and other technologies. These devices precisely track a variety of data including moisture and temperature levels, fuel use, chemical input levels and more to make farming more accurate and controlled. It produces large volumes of data best manipulated using the fastest, fiber-optic-powered broadband, Sears said.

"A lot of people don't realize how advanced precision ag already is in the Basin," Commissioner Judy Wilson said. "Because of the row crops; all those fellows use precision ag programs. I don't think the state has a grasp of all that."

"Having fiber to your farm office will add significant value," Sears said.

Grant PUD is working to extend its wholesale fiber-optic network to every resident of Grant County. The $229 million network is currently available to approximately 80% of county residents. The cost to finish the buildout is estimated at $65 million.

There are several bills related to funding for fiber in the state legislature this session. Others include a push to give PUDs "retail authority" — something that Grant PUD is not interested in pursuing because we are lucky to have excellent retail service providers in our county, Sears said Our focus is to continue to build out our wholesale network.

Hear the full discussion at 2:39:35 on the commission audio. See the full staff report on pages 43-50 in the presentation materials packet.

Commissioners also heard:

— From Chief Technology Officer, Derin Bluhm as he outlined the recent key accomplishments of the Enterprise Technology Group.

"2020 was a big year and we got a lot done under a tough set of circumstances," said Bluhm.

The pandemic accelerated the deployment of various cloud-based technology solutions. These solutions allowed employees to seamlessly transition to mobile work environments.

However, the pandemic did not stop other work in the department from progressing. In November, the group successfully deployed the district's new cloud-based customer billing and information system. The multi-month effort to prepare and launch the new system replaced an outdated, in-house managed product.

Other key accomplishments include:

  • Upgrades to the electrical system's field services work management program
  • Migration of the company's intranet to cloud-hosted version of SharePoint
  • Updates to the company's asset management tool adding additional capabilities
  • Updated the IT Service Management tool utilized by the IT service desk staff
  • Various cybersecurity activities, including firewall upgrades
  • Continuing the transition of the existing electrical and fiber system design tools and GIS programs to an ESRI based system

Hear the discussion beginning at 1:56:45 of the commission audio and see the presentation on pages 22-41 of the staff presentations.

— About a newly formed Power Quality Team from Senior Manager of Power Delivery & Construction, Ron Alexander. Poor power quality, or the degree in which the electrical power supply may vary outside of prescribed voltage and current ranges, can potentially cause electrical service disruptions for customers.

Alexander said the team is evaluating the electrical system and identifying sites and components that need repair or require further evaluation. Upon evaluation Construction and Maintenance will work with Power Delivery Engineering to begin making enhancements to the distribution grid.

Commissioner Larry Schaapman was complimentary of the group's proactive approach to addressing power quality issues, noting that when an irrigation customer experiences a power "bump" it can require a lot of work on the customer's part, as they may need to restart multiple center pivot irrigation systems.

Alexander also shared updates regarding other recent activities within the department, including:

  • Supporting construction efforts of Grant PUD's fiber-optic network build-out
  • Efforts to mitigate pole fires. Crews are proactively changing components on power poles to reduce the potential risk of pole fires.
  • Grant PUD crews responding to mutual aid requests of neighboring utilities to help with electrical restoration efforts following storms in the region.

Hear the discussion beginning at 1:19:30 of the commission audio and see the presentation on pages 10-21 of the staff presentations.

— There were no action items during Tuesday's meeting

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