Residents brought up new technology, utility rebates and renewable energy at the City of Columbia Water & Light Advisory Board’s special meeting for new projects and public input.
Stephanie Brown, assistant director of community relations for the city’s contact center and utility customer service, presented information about the new My Utility Bill customer portal, which became available to users in June. Brown said about 19% of all active utility accounts have registered with the online portal, but she said the goal is to see 30% of all active accounts registered by Sept. 30, 2020.
“That’s kind of a low number,” Brown said, referring to the board’s 30% goal. “We’d like to see higher than that.”
Brown said the portal supports the city’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan and is low cost compared to manual utility bill payment. To increase registration, she said the city has been using new marketing strategies.
“I hope we make the goal next September,” Chair Jay Hasheider said. “Hopefully with the presentation tonight ... maybe some other people will become aware of this.”
Brandon Renaud, utility services manager, presented information about the utility rebate programs designed to conserve energy. These programs work with both commercial and residential accounts.
On the residential side, Renaud first spoke about the Home Performance with Energy Star program that started in 2008. The rebates program evolved from an educational program; now, participants can receive up to $1,200 in rebates.
He also spoke about the low-to-moderate-income qualifying program, the Enhanced Home Performance with Energy Star Program as well as the air conditioner and heat pump rebates and solar rebate programs.
Renaud said the home performance programs focus on health and safety.
“We make sure that as we seal up any house that we go into, when we leave we know that that house, that homeowner, is safe or better off than when we arrived,” Renaud said.
Home performance specialist Tony Rigdon proposed the advisory board consider heat pump and hybrid electric water heater rebates. Renaud said this technology is finally getting to the point where these rebates could be something the city considers.
“There have been some issues with them in the past with some brands, but brands out there are really advancing,” Rigdon said.
In 2020, Renaud said the staff aims to promote water conservation programming and community solar programming.
Ryan Williams, assistant director of Columbia Water & Light, gave an update on the water bond projects that work to address system modification, system reliability and replacement of existing infrastructure.
Williams mentioned the city is currently looking for suitable property close enough to the water system and capable of solving the area’s pressure problems without having to build an overly tall tower. He said staff members have two or three locations in mind, but if they haven’t chosen something by summer 2020, the utility will have to explore another option, such as a vacant property or forceful usage.
“Do we do a substantial system upgrade in the area so that wherever we put the tower solves the problem?” he asked. “Or do we forcibly require a piece of property to work with the existing infrastructure that we already have?”
Williams also gave a short summary about the electric resource plan. He said the respective task force has been working to develop three documents: an integrated resource plan, electric master plan and electric cost of service study.
The integrated resource process includes identifying what to do about the planned electric substation and high-voltage power lines in light of the new forecasted need, or load, that has been realized since the 2015 bond issue passed, Hasheider said. Comments about the electric resource planning expressed concern about the task force not focusing on how the temperature of Columbia affects the need for energy consumption, staff not being actively engaged enough, and a lack of transparency.
Following the set agenda items, the floor was open to general public comment.
One included concern that the city may be focusing on ideology over solid data when it comes to renewable energy. On the other hand, there were concerns that there is not enough of an urgent focus on climate change and use of renewable energy.
Some commended the advisory board for getting more energy-efficient and for educating the public.
Another resident suggested changing customer charges to incentivize lower consumption of electricity and water.
“It’s just immoral to make them pay more per kilowatt or more per (centum cubic feet) of water,” Frank Shulse said, seconding this suggestion.
Responding to one commenter, Vice Chair Thomas Jensen said staff is relied on but that public input is also very important.
“Don’t feel like you have to wait for this sort of thing,” Jensen said. “Reach out to someone on the board.”
Hasheider closed the meeting by thanking everyone who came.
“I hope it is not the last that the board does in order to engage the public,” he said.
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