Electric clocks on Block Island never seemed to keep consistent time, and the hum of diesel generators drowned out the calls of seabirds in many island neighborhoods. Signs of neglect on the power grid serving about 700 year-round residents of New Shoreham, Rhode Island, included overgrown rights-of-way and transformers rusted brown from corrosive salt spray.
Business leaders running the hotels, resorts and restaurants for a steady flow of some 20,000 seasonal tourists knew their early 20th century electric system often fell short of visitor expectations.
When private developers received permits to build the nation’s first offshore windfarm in 2009, talk of alternatives to the small investor-owned utility gained momentum. By the time the $300 million, 30-megawatt Deepwater Wind Farm was energized in December 2016, the member-controlled Block Island Utility District had successfully acquired a minority share of the local electric distribution system.
“I was hired to help oversee the transition to a member-ownership model, and I quickly tapped into the contacts I’ve made working in the electric cooperative community,” says Jeffrey Wright, president of Block Island Utility District, NRECA’s newest distribution co-op member and its only member in Rhode Island. “When we completed the acquisition 27 months later, I became an employee of the utility district, and it was full steam ahead.”
But with a staff of just six full-time employees, creating a modern utility to serve the 11-square-mile island required planning, help and a repaired relationship with former customers who were now member-owners.
He also established business relationships with the Cooperative Response Center, the National Information Solutions Cooperative and the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp. (CFC).
“We’re a 100% borrower,” Wright says. “CFC gave us a $6 million unsecured loan to do the purchase, and with the help and support we’ve gotten from those organizations, you might say that we are a product of the cooperative network.”
Contracting with CRC means co-op phones are answered 24 hours a day. The suite of NISC services has streamlined billing and helped the utility district utilize its undersea cable connection to mainland wholesale power, improving power quality and reliability.
Additional loans from CFC have helped the system rebuild to Rural Utilities Service standards and implement a much-improved maintenance schedule.
“We’ve changed out 500 of the 2,000 poles on the island,” Wright says. “Seventy-one percent of our poles were over 40 years old, and some were old 20-foot hickory poles that had been in use since the 1930s.”
The system is being rebuilt with taller 40-foot poles that can accommodate a fiber network for commercial internet service. Pole-mounted transformers are now housed in stainless steel containers to control corrosion and lengthen their service. And the utility district’s employees are all directly involved in building strong relationships with members.