TRUCKEE, Calif. — Renewable energy and district finances were the main topics discussed at a Truckee Donner Public Utilities District Board candidate forum last Thursday at Truckee town hall.
Four residents are running for three open seats on the TDPUD board: Joseph “Joe” R. Aguera, a PUD board member for the past 25 years who worked as the funeral director at Truckee Tahoe Mortuary before retiring in 2004; Jeff Bender, a PUD board member for the past four years who works as mechanical engineer, general contractor and energy consultant; Bob Ellis, a Realtor in Truckee who has served on several homeowner association boards; and David Gravell, an attorney who is running for public office for the first time.
One of the first questions posed to the candidates was what are three things the district is doing well.
“The top three things I think they're doing well is No. 1, they're keeping rates low and stable,” Ellis said. “I think that's very important for people, especially during tough times right now. The other thing is the quality of the water and the dependability on the water and electrical. The third thing is fiscally, the PUD is exceptionally well-funded.”
Bender agreed with Ellis in regard to rate stability, and with Aguera, who commented on the success of the PUD's energy conservation program, but Bender also mentioned the district's ability to execute capital projects efficiently.
Gravell, however, focused on the district's transparency.
“I believe the PUD has made great strides over the 25 years,” he said. “I think they have reached out for the input in more recent times. I think they've opening up how operations are managed. Big kudos there. … Also, the progressiveness of the PUD in joining with other rural utilities across the country, strengthening numbers, sharing resources has made a great difference for the PUD locally.”
As for things the TDPUD can improve upon, none of the candidates could come up with anything on the spot.
“Being on the board now, my three answers are nothing, nothing and nothing,” said Aguera.
Similar responses came with the question: “What is the biggest issue facing the board the next four years, and if elected, how would you propose to address it?”
Aguera, Ellis and Gravell didn't see any major issues forthcoming, but Bender voiced otherwise.
“I see that the biggest issue facing the board over the next four years is regulation,” he said. “Regulation from the state of California Legislature coming down brings uncertainty to a utility board. For example, the carbon cap and trade program, which will be unveiled later this year. … So I feel it's regulation and that unknown-of regulation.”
Solar, wind, geothermal heat and hydroelectricity are all forms of renewable energy increasing in popularity due to environmental and fiscal reasons.
The candidates were asked to rate the district's ability to provide electricity through renewables, and all gave a high rating.
“I would give the PUD an A-plus regarding renewable energy because we are so far ahead of the curve with the rest of the state of California and even the whole country,” Bender said. “Back in 2005, 2006, the district was around 95 percent coal, and now we're over 40 percent renewable. … So hitting 40 percent and rates not increasing in the last three years is an incredible accomplishment.”
Ellis said the TDPUD shouldn't stop looking into other forms of renewable energy just because the district is doing well in that regard.
“I think in the future we can continue to look for additional sources — wind power seems to be a very good option these days and very cost effective,” he said. “It gives us a good long-term power source, so I think that's a good way to go because we don't know what the cost of fuel and other sources may be in the future.”
Another renewable energy source is biomass, and an audience question asked the candidates if they would purchase power from the proposed biomass plant on Cabin Creek Road should it be approved.
All candidates said they would have to look into the matter further before making a decision on it.
Another question posed was if candidates felt the PUD's reserve budget of more than $15 million is an important thing for the district to maintain and perhaps grow.
All four agreed it is, but for slightly different reasons.
Bender said the reserve is needed for capital improvement projects such as the replacement of leaking water pipes, which can prove to be expensive — a statement with which Ellis agreed, especially since some projects can pop up suddenly along with other unexpected events.
“You've got to plan for the future,” Gravell said. “… There's a component of the reserve funds that provides rate stabilization for the rate payers of the district. The market rate for power is incredibly fluctuating. If there's a refinery that goes out or some other failure, those prices jack to the sky.”
The fact that district payers haven't seen an increase in their utility bill in three years “speaks volumes of the reserve structure,” Gravell added.
“I wouldn't change anything,” Aguera said. “I would just keep adding to it and get as much (money) as we can into our reserves for future development.”
As for ways to save the district and those within the district money in the coming years, three of the four candidates agreed it was through the conservation of energy and employment.
“When people retire, we analyze is that position really needed and can we diversify and spread out that task among other employees currently at the district,” Bender said.
“Since we've replaced a lot of the leaking water lines, there's now a 20 percent reduction in water use,” he continued. “That's the largest payer of the electric utility — the water district — so by just reducing the pumping energy of that 20 percent … , we're providing to all our Truckee residents an enormous savings.”
Aguera and Ellis echoed what Bender said, while Gravell said pursuing renewable energy will help generate more funds for the district, since it can then sell its excess in carbon allowances to others that aren't as green.
Voters will be asked to choose three of the four candidates to fill three open seats.