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Vero electric customers prepare to jump ship


During a particularly frustrating period in the struggle to convince the Tom White and Sabe Abell-led Vero Beach City Council circa 2009 that getting Vero out of the electric business was a really great idea, long-time Indian River Shores Mayor Tom Cadden said he was so eager to free the Shores from Vero’s stranglehold that “if we have to, we’ll blanket the Town with windmills.”

Considering the controversy one “stealth” cell phone tower has stirred up in the Shores (it’s still not built), Cadden was surely using hyperbole to convey his complete exasperation with efforts to sell Vero Electric to Florida Power and Light. To Cadden, like many who spent distinguished careers taking decisive action, the inability to remedy the $20 million extra paid annually by the community to Vero Electric for power seems unfathomable.

This time around, under the equally intransigent Dick Winger and Jay Kramer-led City Council which doggedly defends the city’s right to stay in and profit from the electric business, the functional equivalent of tasteful rows of windmills might, yet again, be emerging as a more fruitful option than continuing to think about, let alone solve, the litany of Vero electric’s problems.

They’re not considering erecting actual windmills, but Vero electric customers are beginning to talk seriously about getting themselves partially or wholly “off the grid,” even if the city itself can’t manage to escape the grips of big, municipal power interests in Orlando and across the state.

It was announced this past week that Piper Aircraft, still the largest private employer in the county even after some planned layoffs, has a shovel-ready plan to drastically reduce the nearly $2.5 million it pays annually to Vero electric.

Commissioner Tim  Zorc met with Piper President and CEO Simon Caldecott and his facility engineers about the issue and, and since Piper officials had scheduling conflicts with July and August Vero Beach City Council meetings, Zorc was sent to tell city leaders the news.

“They had a proposal to build their own generating facility at Piper to power their own needs, and essentially not unplug but no longer be a demand on the City of Vero Beach system,” Zorc said.

Zorc pointed out that Piper represents more than 5 percent of the city’s demand.

“In part they’re considering it because they don’t see a future closure of a sale of City of Vero Beach electric,” he said.

Zorc said Piper can move forward with the generator at the stroke of Caldecott’s pen, and that Piper expects to recoup startup costs in about two years. “That’s a pretty great return on their investment to be able to recapture it that quick,” Zorc said.

“Piper’s not the only one looking at this. There’s a number of other customers, where I would say their annual bill is greater than $200,000, that have found an economy of scale with the availability of low-cost natural gas and the cost of purchasing their own generating equipment,” Zorc said. “Apparently there must be some tipping point when it makes financial sense.”

When asked by Mayor Winger to comment on the city’s position, City Manager Jim O’Connor added that high-demand customers like the hospital could also “at any time could turn on their generator, which would be fine with us, too,” and that Publix supermarkets use their storewide generator system as a policy elsewhere in Florida.

O’Connor said the city would not be harmed by these moves, due to flexibility built into its power-supply contracts. But, he said, the bottom line is that Vero would still be required to be ready to serve its entire existing customer base.

“We’re gonna have to have capacity, even for people who build their own generation. There are times that they are going to rely on the native load of the utility serving the area,” O’Connor said.

During the city’s budget workshops, Airport Director Eric Menger said that the airport – which was renamed last week the Vero Beach Regional Airport in hopes of attracting commercial passenger service –  is also planning to install a 40-foot wide field of solar panels. The solar field would go between two runways, and is budgeted for in the five-year plan. The airport operates as an enterprise fund and as such must balance its budget like a business.

At the same meeting, Utilities Commission member Laura Moss reported more anecdotal evidence of the trend, reporting that she’d seen a favorite local bistro readying equipment to convert all its kitchen appliances to natural gas to get some relief from its $4,000 per month electric bill.

“I really think we need to bring this matter to closure,” she said.” You know, everyone’s jumping off the ship at this point – I guess Piper and probably a number of small businesses that we couldn’t even know about.”

Closure or no closure, locals who can install solar panels or convert appliances to natural gas are no longer waiting around for some all-powerful alphabet-soup agency to rescue them from electric rates 30 percent higher than FPL.

Vero electric customers that couldn’t wait out the conclusion to the saga and literally moved off the city’s utility system after the sweltering summer of 2009 made up the first wave of refugees. The current wave is comprised of those who continue to struggle with still no end in sight, but who now seek an escape hatch ever-so-slightly off the grid.

Shores residents and the Town’s team of experts still bank on lawyering their way out of Vero electric with the Shores circuit court lawsuit. Theoretically, a victory in that case would provide a way for the Shores to exit in November 2016 when its franchise with Vero expires.

Best case for the Shores, Judge Cynthia Cox rules in the Town’s favor on every argument, no one appeals and no one mounts any sort of regulatory challenge to a sale of the Shores part of Vero’s system to FPL that is expected to follow a favorable court ruling.

That outcome, however, still leaves customers outside the city limits on the south barrier island, Grand Harbor and throughout the mainland on the Vero electric system. Worst case for everyone, the Town, Vero and Indian River County remain locked in appellate proceedings for longer and at greater cost than it would take to “blanket the Town with windmills.”