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Planning for the future in a volatile landscape

July 14, 2022

EWEB Commissioners and staff at the July 5, 2022 board meeting

Eugene Water & Electric Board Commissioners are looking to the future in an uncertain time. At their July 5, 2022 meeting, commissioners discussed budget, rate setting, and got an update on continued watershed restoration work in the aftermath of 2020’s Holiday Farm Fire. 

EWEB’s five commissioners, who dedicate their service to the utility as volunteers without pay, are elected by the citizens of Eugene to set policies, approve the annual budget and make changes to electric and water rates when necessary.   Board meetings are streamed live to the public and recordings are posted on eweb.org. Those who tune in will hear commissioners contend with topics like climate change, fluctuating utility costs, developments in grid technologies, and ever-evolving consumer expectations.  In these conditions of uncertainty, decision making is a challenge. 

“Our goals make us unique compared to other utilities, and we will be grappling with how we meet these goals under current trends and pressures,” said Commissioner Mindy Schlossberg, who represents the entire service area in the at-large position. 

At their July meeting, for example, Commissioners began exploring the topic of how to set electric and water rates in the future. EWEB has started rolling out smart meter technology, which when fully implemented will give customers more flexibility and knowledge of their energy use and options.   

Marianne McElroy, EWEB’s Billing Operations Manager shared some of the more innovative ways utilities can set pricing, including Time of Use (TOU) rates.   

“When the costs are lower for the utility, the costs are lower for the customer,” said Marianne.  

 But even rate practices continue to evolve as energy markets and technology advance. 

“I read a headline recently that TOU rates solved yesterday's problems,” said Marianne. “In some places TOU rates are aging out as utilities face even greater risks and uncertainties in delivering critical services.” 

She said a new example—real time pricing—is looking promising:   

“Prices vary frequently, hourly over the course of the day to reflect fluctuating electricity cost determined by wholesale electricity prices.” 

Commissioner Sonya Carlson emphasized the importance of keeping equity in mind when considering new technologies and services.   

“People who are older and not tech savvy, they don’t have the ability to deal with some of those pricing models,” Sonya said. She said she hopes there are options that meet the needs and capabilities of a variety of customers.   

General Manager Frank Lawson said more specifics on future rate decision will come in 2023.  

Just as prices for electricity can vary hour by hour, so can the carbon content of electricity production.   Although EWEB's energy portfolio is composed almost entirely of carbon-free power, we are part of a highly integrated regional energy grid that includes coal and natural gas. When the highest ("peak") level of electricity is being used in the region, there is more of this carbon-intensive energy on the grid. 

“I sit in on meetings with utility colleagues who are wrestling with a grid that is under pressure, said Frank Lawson. “We rely on a grid that has a whole, separate unique set of challenges with it--EWEB issues, grid issues, customer issues—and we are trying to balance those issues.” 

Other decisions on the Board’s docket include the future of the Leaburg Canal, part of EWEB’s 100-year-old hydropower project that must either be rehabilitated or decommissioned due to structural deficiencies, development of EWEB’s next Integrated Resource Plan, which will analyze possible energy resource portfolios for long-term electricity supply planning, and investment in a second water treatment plant to increase the resiliency of our community’s water supply. 

These are long-term and complex decisions that will affect our community for generations and must be made in a turbulent environment of a changing climate, new technology, developing markets, political and regulatory flux, natural and human threats, and evolving diverse community expectations. 

“As a commissioner one of the things that I’ve learned over the past year and a half is it’s easy to have a soundbite, but when you start digging into it it’s a much deeper topic,” said Commissioner John Barofsky, who represents wards 2 and 3 in southeast Eugene, speaking on the topic of building and vehicle electrification, another subject the EWEB board and other elected officials are grappling with.  

Board decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. Commissioners hold regularly scheduled public meetings on the first Tuesday of each month, typically starting at 5:30 p.m. Customers and the general public are welcome and encouraged to view meetings and submit public comments at eweb.org/Board.