Sunday, April 19, 2015

Dear OPALCO members and island residents,

We invite you to join us in signing a petition ( requesting OPALCO to provide an accounting of their investment in fiber optics or communication equipment together with an item-by-item justification of its use for the electrical grid.

Like many on the islands, we are very much in favor of fast, reliable, internet. Indeed, our professional work depends on it.

But we don’t want the cost of broadband infrastructure to be borne on the backs of OPALCO electricity members who don’t necessarily want or need internet. This is brought to the forefront with approved electricity tariffs (see which bring an unprecedented increase in the cost of electrical services, especially for smaller users (low income, the elderly, families that conserve electricity, and those with grid-connected renewable energy).

It is noteworthy that in the USA, electric cooperatives are not under the jurisdiction of state energy regulatory authorities. The presumption is that because we, the members, are the owners, the coop acts in the interests of its members through the representatives we elect. In many cases this works out well. But it also means that as members we need to watch out to make sure the train stays on the rails and our elected representatives are working in our best interests. Transparency in expenditures is an important part of that.

An important part of the equation in our opinion is that for electric utilities, broadband holds a powerful allure. There is considerable symbiosis: fiber optic cables can provide ultra-reliable high speed switching for substations, with extra bandwidth to spare. Fiber optic cables are hung on poles or go in trenches, and laying both fiber and electric power cables at the same time can save considerable costs compared to doing each separately. On the other hand, widespread deployment of internet in the county requires very large investments in infrastructure – and excessive investments can severely disrupt utility finances.

Last year OPALCO made a policy choice we applauded: to make its fiber optic and communication investments only in areas that are justified based on their role in improving or facilitating reliable electricity service, and to build out fiber to customers on a ‘pay as you go’ approach, expanding where customers were willing to pay the infrastructure costs. If, as OPALCO board members assure us, this is the case, then it should have no problem providing detailed data that will put to rest questions about allocation of electrical budget resources to broad-band that keep arising in the community.

We see this request for data part of an engaged democratic process, committed to seeing OPALCO succeed as a respected, reliable utility that provides clean, affordable power to its customer/owners and extends opportunities for broad-band incrementally as they make sense financially.

Best regards,

Islands Energy Coalition

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Reconceiving "Good Life"

My previous article “Facing the reality of fossil fuel economy and climate change" discussed the ubiquity of fossil fuels in everyday life. Fossil fuels fuel our cars, factories that make stuff, farms that feed us, and the economy on which we all depend. Can we wean ourselves from “oil addiction”? Not easily.

Yet, the greatest threat facing humanity is climate change. As atmospheric carbon climbed past 400 parts per billion, we have entered unknown territory. Many people, myself included, have difficulty facing what climate science demands of us. We have difficulty imagining, let alone embracing, the radical changes to economies, consumption patterns, and political systems necessary if carbon emissions are to be sufficiently reduced.

Why does our imagination fail in this way? One reason is that reduction in fossil fuel consumption will lead to economic de-growth. It goes against prosperity and threatens our notion of a “good life,” the kind of life most consider worth living.

But consider that Homo Sapiens have walked the earth for 200,000 years, and that fossil fuels revolutionized industrial production only in the last 200 years or so. It is remarkable that our notion of “life” has evolved to be so completely entwined with petroleum that we have a hard time imagining living without it.

Matthew Huber’s book Lifeblood details the petroleum industry’s efforts to saturate American life with petroleum products and to shape the country’s cultural politics toward neoliberal values such as privatism, individualism, and consumer choice. Petroleum became the material and energetic basis for entrepreneurial life, home ownership, auto-mobility, and the nuclear family.

Americans take pride in the myth of “self-made” individuals. But this “hard-earned success” and affluence today seems inconceivable without petroleum and petro-economy. The petroleum industry has successfully equated opposition to limitless petroleum consumption with opposition to cherished national ideals. Unfortunately, this insidious view is not confined to the United States, but has been embraced worldwide.

To adequately address climate change, it is vital to recognize that the neoliberal ideal of life based on selfish, individual advancement does not serve us well. We have become lonely, dissatisfied individuals trying to accumulate material wealth and out-compete each other while destroying our health and our planet.

Fortunately, humans are hard-wired to be caring, kind and compassionate, a fact confirmed by scientific studies by Dacher Keltner at the UC Berkeley. Healthier visions of the good life—ones that emphasize love, community, solidarity, compassion, and generosity—have been cherished in much of human history and many cultures. These visions and values must be nurtured to vitality to counter the “survival-of-the-fittest” narrative.

Humans have deep yearning for empathy, connections and belonging to something bigger than individual selves. When we connect with this core yearning and unleash our creativity and compassion, I believe the world has plenty of resources and ingenuity to blaze a new, healthier path for humanity, take care of all beings, and heal the planet.

Fortunately for our island communities, many neighborhoods, groups and individuals have courageously blazed the trails in various areas not because they are the easiest paths, but rather because they resonate with our deeper vision of the world, of “good life”. From organic farming, to various conservation efforts, to Lopez Take-It-Or-Leave-it, when people join hands to manifest their visions of individuals, communities, and economies coming into alignment with nature, we will experience the true, lasting fulfillment of lives well-lived.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Facing the reality of fossil fuel economy and climate change

By Chom Greacen

My heart wrenched as I followed the news of the Super Typhoon Haiyan hitting the Philippines. One of the strongest storms on record, Haiyan made Katrina and Sandy look like “weak cousins.”

How many more lives and losses will it take for us to stop our sleepwalking march toward climate change catastrophes? When will we figure out how to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

Yet over 1 billion people in the world are still without access to electricity. The problem is not that we don’t have energy to go around. Rather, the benefits (and costs) of energy production are not shared equally. 

Ironically, the countries whose citizens are “energy poor” are often the ones whose energy wealth is exported to consumers in richer countries. Myanmar is a case in point. Its energy exports are among the top in the Southeast Asian region. Yet, only 26% of its population has access to electricity.

the top 1 percent own 40 percent of U.S. wealth
Read more:
 The primary issue is gross inequality.  40% of the world’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of the top 1% while 80 percent of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.”

Is there a better way to equitably meet everyone’s energy needs without hurting the planet and each other? 
How about “green energy” (energy conservation, efficiency and renewable energy)? There is no doubt that green energy opportunities should be exploited to their maximum economic potentials before unsustainable options such as nuclear and fossil fuels are pursued. But there is no magic energy bullet; even in countries where green energy is embraced, CO2 emissions have hardly decreased.

Fossil fuels are not easily replaceable by other energy forms. Having evolved with and turbo-charged capitalism, fossil fuels are key inputs in industrial processes (to make plastics and various other goods) and ingredients (synthetic fertilizers) in food production. They enable creation of a mobile yet dispensable work force; the relocation of production bases to areas where cheap labor can be obtained; the abstraction of geography (resources anywhere are now fair game for multinational corporations). They are time- and labor-savers, conveyors of international trade, yardsticks of progress, supposed guarantors of “national security” (from energy, food and economic perspectives), as well as addictive drugs in the guises of convenience and comfort.

It is difficult to come to grips with how deep the “fossil fuel” hole is that humanity has found itself in. It is even more challenging to grasp the full implications of the changes needed to save humanity from itself. Green energy is a step in the right direction, but is just a small part of the changes needed. Without changing the fundamentals of our capitalist economy, our production, our sense of “security”, our relationship with wealth and inequality, it is difficult to make a real climate difference and meet everyone’s needs.

So what can be done? More on this soon. But meanwhile, if you have ideas, do share.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The “new chapter” of OPALCO we wish to see

By Islands Energy Coalition

Since its inception 75 years ago, OPALCO has overcome technical, financial and geographical challenges to expand electrical service to its members

The bedrock of OPALCO’s success has been Bonneville Power Administration who supplied cheap hydropower to meet OPALCO’s growing needs. With the end of cheap, plentiful power, OPALCO members are in for an exciting ride. BPA’s rates are rising (over 8% next year alone). Increased electricity demand will have to be met through purchase from volatile electricity market at high prices.

So what will OPALCO’s “new chapter” be?

Is it broadband? Broadband is understandably appealing because of its familiar story line: expanding network infrastructure despite technical, financial and geographical challenges.
But broadband is an entirely different beast. Unlike electricity distribution which offers OPALCO a natural monopoly, broadband is known for its intense competition and fast-changing technology. Broadband involvement therefore requires cautious prudence to ensure OPALO’s financial and social capital is not put at risk.

Where else can OPALCO apply its talents and assets to take on new challenges while contributing to the county’s economic development?

We suggest the new OPALCO chapter is not only about hardware, but also software and “peopleware”. In addition to laying down wire and making prudent capital investments, now is the time to: redesign the tariff structure to be more cost-reflective and conducive to conservation, offer incentives for community solar generation, and invest in green jobs and the local economy through energy efficiency and homegrown energy.

OPALCO can leverage its social capital and access to its members to engage them not as passive consumers, but as active collaborating partners, energy co-producers and creative shapers of electricity load.

OPALCO can cultivate a new breed of architects and retrofit crews to incorporate green designs and help homeowners lower their bills.

The benefits of the “local green energy vision” are clear and numerous, including:

  •  lower bills (from plugging leaks)
  •  lower OPALCO electricity rates (from reduced exposure to expensive electricity market rates)
  •  increased jobs and green energy economy
  •  economic development through re-circulating saved money and investment locally
  •  improved self-sufficiency and environmental benefits

As OPALCO members, we are ready to be partners of OPALCO’s new direction. Together, we will evolve our relationship with energy from “I can pay, and therefore I consume” towards becoming co-stewards of this shared, precious resource through an uncertain future.
Let’s co-write OPALCO’s new chapter to be about collaboration, green economy and resiliency.

Islands Energy Coalition ( is a group of energy enthusiasts with an interest in solutions and empowerment towards a resilient energy future for the San Juan Islands.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Petcoke – a new danger in our waters

By Chom Greacen
The image of a three-story pile of petroleum coke covering an entire city block by the Detroit River that appeared in a 5/17/2013 New York Times article was a wake-up call for me.

The wind picked up dust from the open-air petroleum coke pile on the side of the Detroit River as the 'petcoke' was loaded onto the Manitowoc (photo taken on May 14, 2013).
— image credit: Petroleum Coke Awareness Detroit (
The rising accumulation of this toxic material, also known as “petcoke”, is a waste by-product of the booming Canadian tar sands (bitumen) extraction, refining and distribution industry. It is similar to coal, but with even higher CO2 emissions, heavy metals and carcinogenic PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) content. Petcoke sells at a significant discount to coal, and is increasingly blended with coal in coal-fired power plants making coal-fired generation cheaper and dirtier.

What does petcoke and tar sands have to do with us here in the San Juan?

The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, the largest coal export facility in North America, is also designed to handle and export petcoke out of Cherry Point through our surrounding waters.

Petcoke from conventional crude (which is relatively cleaner than that from tar sands oil) is already produced as a refinery byproduct in Anacortes and Cherry Point. Up to 6000 tons of coke are shipped weekly from the Anacortes refineries by train to the Alcan Inc. aluminum smelter in Kitimat, British Columbia. As more tar sands are refined, petcoke production will increase.

Sticky bitumen, extracted from tar sands in Alberta and mixed with diluents to allow the mixture (“diluted bitumen” or “dilbit”) to flow, is transported through the existing pipeline from Alberta to refineries in Washington. As conventional oil from Alaska declines in production, tar sands oil will play an increasing role in meeting the US demand. A plan is already in the works to more than double the pipeline capacity to move more tar sands oil through our Salish Sea. 

Petcoke is thus the coal hiding in tar sands oil boom and is potentially turning refineries into coal factories and our surrounding waters into dirty fossil fuel highway to Asia!

We are only beginning to see how tangled we are in this coal, tar sands oil, petcoke production and transportation business.

One local risk and potential impacts arises from the open-air piles of petcoke at the Port of Anacortes awaiting shipment (by ship and by rail, in open box cars).  The petcoke must be misted to reduce the release of toxic dust. The capture and treatment of this toxic dust and water mixture is at best diverted into the Anacortes sewage treatment plant, which does not detoxify heavy metals or PAHs. These carcenogens likely end up in Padilla Bay and Salish Sea and bio-accumulate in shell fish, salmons, orcas and seafood-loving humans.

The growth of industrial petcoke activity may not be ours by conscious choice, but we can certainly do what we can to keep toxic coal, petcoke and tar sands oil off our food, waters and shoreline. We can contact our local councilmen, representatives and legislatures to voice our concerns and demands for proper regulations, and choose to make steps towards less fossil-fuel-dependent lifestyle to wean ourselves from the hydrocarbon industry.

Visit to get sources of information for this article.  

Thursday, May 2, 2013

OPALCO’s risky venture into broadband business


We have been following the OPALCO broadband debate and are in full agreement that we need better and faster internet access for its economic, educational and communication benefits. It is very frustrating to pay Centurytel for 1.5 Mbps of download speed only to get as low as 0.02 Mbps or no internet at all. But we do have grave concerns about OPALCO’s current business plan to venture into broadband business. And we don’t believe that we either have broadband through OPALCO or no broadband at all. There may be other cheaper and safer options that have not been fully explored.

Firstly about our concerns:


To ensure “financial viability” of the broadband effort, a monthly fee of $15 will be charged to the entire OPALCO membership. This is on top of the $27 monthly fee for electricity service, a 55% increase. This additional broadband fee amounts to about $2.7 million/year for the entire OPALCO membership, roughly equal to the 2012 SJ county budget allocated to County Council, General Administration, and Health and Community Services combined (see

We pay for our county government and services through property taxes which are levied based on property value and have discounts for senior citizens. The broadband fee is a flat rate, however, a very regressive way to “tax”. Whether you are a mere low-income renter or a $10 million property owner, the “tax” burden is the same. 11% of SJ population is below poverty level (2007-2011 census data:

The only provision OPALCO proposed to take care of affordability issue for low-income or senior members so far is to set up a voluntary, “Project PAL” type fund. Project PAL has “round up” contributions totaling only $20,000 each year currently, a paltry sum compared to $2.7 million, and a pot of money already stretched thin to help make electricity affordable.

People who have no plan to subscribe to broadband services may choose to “opt out” (they will have to pay a hefty penalty fee later if they change their mind). But what percentage of OPALCO membership can “opt out” without jeopardizing the financial viability of broadband investment? Will the rest have to shoulder a bigger fee as a result? And what if a struggling family cannot afford to not opt out right now but does want internet access for their growing children in the future? How would they be able to afford the penalty fee? Is the proposed “Project PAL” type fund an adequate measure to address affordability issues? How many low-income residents will be forced to live without electricity because they can’t afford to help underwrite the expensive $34 million broadband investment? Economic benefits generated by broadband investment should not happen at the expense of people who are already economically marginalized.


Electricity distribution is a monopoly business. OPALCO has 75-year experience running this business with no competition and relatively little technological innovations. As professionals in the field of energy, particularly electricity sector, we would argue that even in the field of its expertise, OPALCO has been slow and even complacent to adapt to and capitalize on the new challenges of changing electricity market. OPALCO let slip precious opportunities, for example, to structure tariffs, proactively invest in energy efficiency and local energy generation in response to the threat of more costly Tier 2 electricity and diminishing low-cost supplies. (It is still not too late but the longer OPALCO waits, the bigger the lost opportunity - a significant topic I’d love to discuss elsewhere later.)

Is OPALCO well-suited to dive into an entirely new and competitive business of telecommunications with very fast changing and complicated technology? We have seen examples of other utilities having made similar decisions to venture into telecom industry and fail miserably.

Chelan County PUD (public utility district) decided in early 2000s to take advantage of its fiber optics backbone and invested in expanding its network to provide internet to its rural customers. A decade later, it was losing $8 million/year and faced with the difficult choice of having to sell its network to cut its losses, cough up about $100 million to cover outstanding debt, or hike electricity rates significantly to stay afloat or a combination. (See and

The City of Ashland also made a similar decision a decade ago, faced stiff competition and had to pay off $15.5 million in debt and raised utility rates, hurting low and middle-income residents. ( Utilities in Utah and Groton, CT also suffered similar predicaments as a result of technological advances, stiff competition and lack of experience (see and

What specific measures does OPALCO propose to avoid the fate that fell to these utilities? Is OPALCO confident it has the expertise, experience, resources and nimbleness to survive and thrive in such a cut-throat competitive industry? The threshold of having 50% of users sign up is no protection if OPALCO is not poised to compete with huge corporations with deep pockets, technical expertise, and years of experience.


Because of the different characteristics and inherent risks of the broadband investment, it is wise for OPALCO to protect its core business of electricity service delivery by creating legal, or at least accounting, separation for broadband business. This is so that if the broadband venture turns out to be financially troubling, OPALCO’s main assets and ability to provide electricity to its members will not be directly threatened. Our lives may be inconvenient without reliable high speed internet, but without reliable electricity, water supply, grocery sales, medical devices will be disrupted, food will spoil, houses turn cold, many lives are at stake. It is therefore of utmost importance that OPALCO does not risk its $60 million assets (which took 75 years to build up) by creating legal separation from the more risky non-core $34 million broadband investment (not including interest). Unfortunately, there is no such provision in the current broadband business plan proposed by OPALCO.


When school districts or the county ask San Juan residents for money, their detailed budgets and plans are put under microscope for taxpayers to analyze and scrutinize. When OPALCO asks its members to underwrite a $34 million investment that could put its core business and members’ capital credit at risk, it is naturally expected that financial information on the broadband investment be made available to its members. We have attended/followed several board meetings in hope of learning more about the financial details. But, while board meetings are normally open to members, the board discussions on broadband were exclusive (members not allowed to observe).

The most information OPALCO has offered so far is a 15-page summary document with very little detail on financial analysis ( With lack of information transparency, it is difficult for members to properly evaluate the risks and economics of the broadband venture and make an informed decision on whether to sign up or opt out. The practice of good governance (transparency of information being one of the pillars) can only inspire confidence and improve OPALCO’s political standing and it is not too late to share with its members OPALCO’s financial information on broadband.

The above are serious concerns about OPALCO’s current plan and process for broadband venture. We need more information, community dialogue and comprehensive look at options. The options are not so black and white: either we have broadband through OPALCO (as currently proposed) or no broadband (with sufficient coverage) at all. We believe other less risky options do exist.

An IEEE (“the world’s largest professional association for the advancement of technology”) article made an insightful observation about leveraging investment in fiber optic communications. Because electric utilities only use a fraction of the fiber optics capacity they install for reliability, communication and smart grid reasons, trying to maximize utilization of the fiber optics infrastructure by coupling with broadband business is a good idea. However, for the power utilities to undertake the investments necessary for deliver broadband services themselves is very risky. A better approach is for utilities to lease the fiber optics capacity to providers of general broadband services. The leasing revenue improves the return on the power system investments and helps lower broadband market entry costs for providers as well as subscribers. (

Has OPALCO seriously considered the options of leasing its fiber optics capacity to broadband service providers (Centurytel and/or others) or setting up a subsidiary broadband joint venture in partnership with an experienced broadband provider company? This is a much safer way forward to deliver broadband services to SJ islanders. If what is needed is some “tax” or “fee” imposed on the majority of San Juan population (through OPALCO rates or taxes) to underwrite a sizable portion of the capital investment, let’s do it in a way that gives more consideration to people’s specific needs and unequal ability to pay, inspires more confidence through greater transparency and participation, and does not risk the health of OPALCO’s core business.

Thank you for your consideration.

Best regards,
Chom & Chris Greacen

Thursday, April 4, 2013

An invitation to hackers, programmers, artists, energy geeks, and cultural creatives ...

Forgive my long missive, but I'd like to share a vision of a the electric "grid of the future". Perhaps some hackers and artists would be interested in building it. To utility engineers, the greatest constraint to significant deployment of renewable energy is that these sources are, by and large, intermittent. Some people see this as a fatal flaw with renewables. I don't. The problem, I believe, is that in the past 100 years consumers have become very disconnected from where electricity actually comes from and the relative abundance of electricity in real time. Utilities have been able to oblige because storable, dispatchable fossil fuel powered electricity has been relatively cheap. But we could have a very different system in which nudges to consumers modulate demand in response to supply.

Folks living on 'home power' off-grid type systems in which their homes are powered by sun or windpower are used to the idea that sometimes there is an abundance of electricity, and other times it is in short supply. When power is abundant, you do things like your laundry, or fire up the electric oven for cooking. In times of scarcity, you're careful to turn out the lights. Sometimes you need to go turn on the diesel generator (noisy, smelly, expensive to operate).

Similarly, farmers harvest when the sun is shining. When it's rainy, they do other things.

Utilities, increasingly, face the same reality of temporal changes in electricity abundance. Sometimes electricity is abundant. It was particularly so in spring of 2011 in BPA territory when winds in the Columbia Gorge were gusting and the snowmelt was significant. The price power power in Spring 2011 at the transmission level actually dipped below zero at times. But as a retail customer using this electricity, I had no clue of the abundance at the time. My light switches were mute.

Other times electricity is scarce -- think a cold, still night in the Pacific Northwest when many folks' electric heaters are turned on, or a hot, breezeless day in California when air conditioners are cranking.

What if, in every home that volunteered to do so, a high-tech electricity display device communicated, in an artistic and playful way, what the state of abundance/scarcity was in the grid? I'm imagining a web-connected display kind of like an iPad with pictures or videos that have high artistic content. The whole package could be set up so that many people could contribute artistic imagery along a theme. One inspiration is the Johnny Cash Project <> where tens of thousands of ordinary people have created thousands of versions of a moving music video.

This effort could be coupled with existing demand response programs that, for example, turn off people's water heaters in response to utility signals at times of peak load. And coupled with tariffs that encourage conservation in times of scarcity.

Users that were interested could, with a few taps, find out detailed real-time graphs of energy production and demand data, like this one maintained by BPA <>.

This technology, in the homes and businesses of the willing, is the keystone, I think, towards a move towards a power system that provides for our needs (in times of scarcity) and our wants (in times of abundance) and facilitates high penetrations of renewable energy with no need to invent utility-scale storage.

Anybody up for the challenge? I'll bet our local utility, OPALCO, might be interested in a discussion about a beta roll-out...