Despite several big infrastructure projects and trickle-down costs from Duke Energy’s coal ash cleanup, local electricity cooperative Blue Ridge Energy said they won’t be raising rates for a sixth straight year, but there’s still chances for rate increases in the next few years.

The news was conveyed by Blue Ridge Energy CEO Doug Johnson during the cooperative’s annual meeting on June 27.

“We’ve discussed this with the board and we know that we need to do this because our power costs have actually been lower than we thought they were going to be,” said Johnson, who noted he is in his 30th year in the position.

Part of the reason for continued rate stabilization is that Duke Energy, which provides wholesale power to BRE, is switching a lot of its energy production from coal to natural gas, which is at historic low prices, Johnson said.

Due to the lower wholesale power costs, Johnson said that members will be receiving bill credits in November and December totaling $7 million.

“We’re going to pass on those savings to our members,” Johnson said.

Coal ash cleanup costs by Duke Energy, which would be passed down to its wholesale buyers, was previously seen as a potential reason for a rate increase. But those costs were mitigated by the tax cuts the U.S. Congress passed, Johnson said. Without the tax cut, Johnson said there would have been a rate increase in 2019.

However, going forward, Johnson explained that the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality is telling Duke Energy to move more coal ash sites at a cost of $5 billion. The case is under appeal, Johnson said, and explained that any potential ripple effect from Duke Energy won’t be known for a year or two.

“We’re hoping (Duke) will prevail on appeal,” Johnson said.

Johnson gave an update on the $40 million, 17-mile 230 kilovolt line from West Jefferson to Boone, which he called the biggest project in terms of investment the cooperative has ever done. Johnson said the grading at the Rutherwood substation near the Food Lion at 1864 Old U.S. 421 was ongoing and that $15 million project will be completed in 2023.

The project will replace current lines that are more than 50 years old.

“This enormous endeavor, officially known as the Horse Gap to Rutherwood 230 kV Project, will expand our capacity, allowing us to meet the reliability needs of members in our mountain service locations today, as well as a half-century from now,” BRE’s annual report states.

In 2018, Johnson said the new Ashe and Watauga 230 kV line could lead to rate increases, but on June 27, Johnson said the cooperative is still figuring out how it could potentially impact rates in the next three to four years.

A new $17.8 million corporate office, right next door to the current office at 1216 Blowing Rock Blvd. in Lenoir, will be move-in ready in October, Johnson said. The building will be paid for and won’t impact member rates, Johnson said.

A future home-based solar-vehicle charging program was mentioned by Johnson, who said there’s a growing number of electric vehicles in BRE’s coverage area, and said that an automated metering program will be coming out in 2021.

The financial health of the cooperative, which Johnson and others emphasized, was reflected in BRE’s annual report. Released in May, the consolidated financial report noted operating revenues were $174,708,000 in 2018, up over $18 million from 2017. Operating expenses also grew by roughly the same amount, rising from $150,296,000 in 2017 to $168,505,000 in 2018.

Blue Ridge Energy is one of the largest electric cooperatives in North Carolina, servicing over 75,000 in a six-county area of Ashe, Watauga, Alleghany, Caldwell, plus small portions of Alexander and Avery counties, consisting of over 200,000 square miles.

As a cooperative, BRE is classified as a nonprofit and is run by its customers, or “members.” BRE does have two for-profit subsidiaries – Ridgelink LLC, a telecommunications company, and Blue Ridge Energies LLC, a fuel propane and district retail company. Both subdisaries have been credited in recent years by BRE executives, including on June 27, for lowering costs for members.

In the cooperative’s annual election of board members, Jeff Joines, Caldwell district; James Burl (J.B.) Lawrence, Watauga district; James Young, Ashe district; and Bryan Edwards, Alleghany district, were elected.

Lawrence, Joines and Edwards, who were up for reelection, were elected unopposed. Young beat out Chris Robinson for the Ashe County seat formerly held by Bradley McNeill, who did not run for reelection.

BRE said that more than 6,100 members voted in the 2019 elections, down from the more than 6,300 they said voted in 2018.

The 12-member board of directors is comprised of three members each from Ashe, Watauga, Alleghany and Caldwell counties. Board member terms are three years and one seat per county is up for reelection every year.

According to its 2017 tax filings, the latest filing publicly available, BRE board members worked between three and nine hours per week and made annual salaries between $22,000 and $27,198.

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