Wednesday, December 14, 2011


AND THE EXTRA POINT IS GOOD: As we approach four years and a thousand posts at this location, most of those who peruse our pages regularly recognize- perhaps with a "there he goes again" eye-rolling now and then- what, to be kind, might be called pet peeves and perennial postulates...

One such "kick" is a result of the fact that, when it comes to Kaua`i Island Utilities Coop (KIUC), the self-drawn target on KIUC's collective butt seems to be subject to re-detailing every time the board meets.

And because they seem to have chronic foot-in-mouth disease and a penchant for opaque operations, they've become easy targets even when their actions are fairly innocuous, as has been the case with the so-called controversy over "smart meters."

Even after going on a quest debunking the health scare- and questioning the so-called "privacy concerns," especially those of Facebook users (a nominee for the the "picture in the dictionary" under "irony"), it's been hard to get those concerned about the energy future of Kaua`i under KIUC on track.

Our long-standing gripe in KIUC's case has been a simple concept that most agree with when they hear it: that the problem with the "coop" is that they still have a business model that says "well sell electricity to our customers," rather than seeing their "job" as facilitating the generation and distribution of power in a manner that empowers the individual "consumers," especially though home generation, at the lowest possible cost and in a manner that's fair to all... cost notwithstanding.

As with many of our repeated rants, we're no closer to actualization than we were the first time we said it than now after the 100th.

But yesterday, after a conversation with founder and facilitator of the "p2pKauai" Facebook group Jonathan Jay, we realized one big problem with this proposed change of philosophy is the lack of- or actually a dispute over- the definition in this context of "consumer."

That's because KIUC is organized as a "coop" and so it is comprised of "members." That's a concept that works well with things like credit unions and organic food distributions where anyone can join based on their desire to participate.

But it is the wrong model for a public utility, where every single person on the island is forced to be a "user."

And especially one on an island with a limited, "closed" system.

Jay told us that even though he lives "off the grid" and doesn't use KIUC's services at home, he is forced to use it every time he goes to the store.

And like a majority of users on the island, he has no voice in the energy decisions being made for him at KIUC. With a population of around 70,000 and the number of "members"- defined as someone who has an electric meter and pays a bill- at around 7,000- only one of 10 have a say in their energy future.

KIUC- to be fair, like other electricity coops- never got around to changing the business model left over from when our system was owned by a for-profit company. Instead they latched onto a common model used across the country, mostly in rural locales.

But changing the business model alone won't really make for a participatory organization where people feel they have a "buy-in" to decisions made in their name.

For that, KIUC needs to move off the current model of serving its "members" and begin serving "users."

That's even more important due to the unique nature of the "closed system" we are forced into by virtue of being an island. There are no far flung places to integrate into our "grid" so where and by whom power is generated, distributed and used becomes much more personal. If we want everyone care about decisions on things like conservation and generation issues we need to empower all the users- everyone on the island- not just the few who directly pay a bill to KIUC.

Recently at a KIUC Board of Directors meeting, according to Jay, a "member" questioned the board's policy of only allowing members to speak at meetings. Amazingly the board decided that it will now let any member of the public speak on agenda items at meetings. Of course non-agenda items are still forbidden from discussion so, for all intents and purposes, it is virtually impossible to get the board to engage in a public discussion of concerns- even those of members, much less all users.

It's time for KUIC to take a good look at the philosophies behind their process and let that decision to empower "users" at meetings be a precedent for an attitude adjustment.

1 comment:

jonathan jay said...

Andy - thanks for your article, but you are slightly in error. The exact language of the new policy says "Any PERSON" can speak at KIUC meetings, and the topic need NOT be already on the agenda. Small but real progress has beeen made, and this is worth reporting.