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PUD’s new GM brings broadband, clean-energy know-how

Chris Heimgartner took a Kentucky electric utility off coal

For now
For now (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

The culture is changing at Public Utility District No. 1 of Whatcom County, and the public agency took a decisive step toward that change when it hired Chris Heimgartner as its new general manager.

As a utility boss, Heimgartner’s specialties include clean energy and broadband. Not coincidentally, new PUD commissioners Atul Deshmane and Christine Grant ousted firmly entrenched incumbents in recent elections by promising to bring internet to underserved rural areas and promoting clean energy.

“Whatcom voters sent a clear message in the last two elections that they wanted more from their PUD — especially on clean energy and broadband,” Grant said in an email to Cascadia Daily News. “Chris Heimgartner is a proven leader on both.”

Deshmane said several good GM candidates emerged from the PUD’s nationwide search, but Heimgartner “rose to the top.”

“I saw his ability to lead us into a growth phase that would allow us to address the new initiatives” of renewables and broadband, Deshmane said.

photo  Chris Heimgartner (Photo courtesy of Whatcom PUD)  

In their review of utility executives’ resumes, PUD commissioners weren’t likely to find one cleaner than Heimgartner’s. His most recent stint was with Henderson Municipal Power & Light (HMP&L), a city-owned electricity provider in Kentucky. When Heimgartner took over the utility in 2017, it generated all of its power at an aging coal-burning plant with soaring maintenance costs. 

As Heimgartner came in, utility officials were debating whether to renovate the coal plant or retool it as a facility that would make electricity by burning natural gas. 

Both options proved too expensive. Under Heimgartner’s leadership and with the help of a consultant, HMP&L decided to mothball the plant and purchase power in an open market made up of thousands of sellers and buyers — sort of a stock market for electricity. 

As a next step, Heimgartner shepherded a deal for HMP&L to obtain about 20% of its power from a 541-acre solar farm outside Henderson that is scheduled to go online in 2023.

When the solar farm deal became public in early 2021, Heimgartner told the town newspaper, “I’m not doing this because I’m a green fanatic. I’m doing this because it’s the best deal for our customers.”

Heimgartner was speaking to an audience “in the middle of coal country,” as he described his previous location. In Whatcom County, the new GM needn’t be so circumspect about his interest in green energy. Some people here see a huge opportunity in the PUD, which has the authority to replace Puget Sound Energy’s mostly carbon-based electricity with its own, which is more than 90% renewable.

Jefferson County PUD on the Olympic Peninsula accomplished this power coup in 2008, taking over for privately owned PSE as the county’s electricity supplier through a ballot measure. 

For now, Whatcom PUD has only one electricity customer: the Phillips 66 refinery at Cherry Point. Possibly sensing that could change, wary PSE officials are regular attendees at PUD Commission meetings.

In an interview at PUD headquarters about two weeks after his Feb. 1 start date, Heimgartner said he was interested to hear more from public power advocates about this option for Whatcom County.

“I definitely look forward to having those conversations,” he said. “That tantalizing future is part of what drew me here, honestly.”

What drew PUD commissioners to Heimgartner, in addition to his green-energy credentials, was his experience running another side of HMP&L: its fiber-internet service. After commissioners Grant and Deshmane took office, the PUD has stepped up, with the Port of Bellingham, to start laying fiber to more remote areas of the county. 

State legislation passed in 2021 gave PUDs the authority to provide broadband content from streaming music to cable news, like AT&T or Xfinity. Commissioner Grant testified on behalf of the state bill last year, but for now Heimgartner isn’t interested. It would mean hiring a lot of new staff and investing in something at risk of failing in competition with seasoned private providers.

“Our goal, at least today, is not to be in the content business,” Heimgartner said. “That’s best done by competitive private industries.”

With all the new possibilities surrounding clean energy and broadband at the PUD, Heimgartner was quick to acknowledge the public utility’s historic bread and butter, its water customers.

Whatcom PUD is one of the biggest water providers in the county, distributing 17 million gallons a day for agricultural and industrial uses. Some of the water system’s equipment is approaching 70 years of age, and Heimgartner said upgrading the water utility is a high priority.

“Those customers deserve our loyalty and fealty, and they’re going to get it,” Heimgartner said. “I want my customers to know, I have not lost sight of them at all.”

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