In 1899, the city fathers in Vineland had the bright idea to light up their main street Landis Avenue with electric lights. The problem was that the local utility at the time refused to run the line to connect the lights because it was too much trouble for such little load. So, in typical Vineland fashion, the city fathers decided to build their own powerhouse.
The plant they created and the tradition of providing generation owned by the citizens has persevered to this day. Vineland is the only municipal electric utility in New Jersey which owns and operates its own utility scale generation plant.
The last few years have been a time of drastic change for VMEU. During that time, the city embraced a new energy strategy. The over-riding goals were to become a leader in clean energy, reliability and low rates. In essence, VMEU wanted to be the best utility in New Jersey.
The first utility-grade project to be completed was Vineland Solar One, a 4 MW solar field located on sewerage authority property which has been in operation since the summer of 2009. Since then, VMEU has contracted for four more solar projects, bringing the grand total to 16 MW of renewable power under contract.
As of July 1, 2008, VMEU faced many obstacles. These included old, coal- and oil-fired generators (that produced 68 MWs) that had problems meeting new environmental standards. Also, the utility was saddled with old and worn out line service trucks and a workforce whose morale had deteriorated along with their equipment.
The utility began by replacing the line trucks with new equipment, which would allow personnel to operate more safely and efficiently. Employee morale and efficiency improved as a result.
Next on the list was replacement of the old, environmentally challenged generators with new, clean burning and efficient, 60 MW natural gas-fired combustion turbines. The first of these went on line on June 1, 2012. A second 60 MW natural gas-fired combustion turbine is in the planning and engineering stage. We expect it to come on line by June 1, 2015. At that time Vineland will have the distinction of being the only municipal electric utility capable of supplying all of its generating capacity with a combination of renewables and its own natural gas-fired generators.
The utility has also upgraded its customer service systems by implementing an online payment system, installing an upgraded phone system, and streamlining the customer service facilities.
The utility has also increased renewable power generation throughout the city. The first utility-grade project to be completed was Vineland Solar One, a 4 MW solar field located on sewerage authority property which has been in operation since the summer of 2009. Since then, VMEU has contracted for four more solar projects, bringing the grand total to 16 MW of renewable power under contract. The move has saved over $1.2 million annually in capacity, energy and transmission costs. These utility solar projects are in addition to almost 14 MW of customer behind the meter and grid solar projects within the city.
Recently, the Christie Administration enacted legislation (P.L. 2012 c.24) which set New Jersey energy supply portfolio standards for solar energy. The standard for 2013 is .752 percent of total sales to be supplied by solar energy. The standard increases gradually to 4.227 percent by the year 2028. Vineland currently has 6.5 percent of its electricity sales supplied by solar energy, which surpasses the 2028 New Jersey requirements. For Vineland, the future of solar energy is now.
VMEU’s solar program has been so successful that on May 13, 2012 the utility was recognized by the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) as ranking #1 in the entire nation in the use of solar energy on a per customer basis.
Over the last four years VMEU has been able to reduce rates three times. The utility has invested in natural gas-fired generation and natural gas commodity prices are at all-time lows and forecast to be that way for many years to come. Also, contributing to the lower rates are the five below market solar power purchase agreements. VMEU’s goal is to have the lowest rates in New Jersey and they are close to achieving that goal.
VMEU is an essential part of the fabric of Vineland. The employees for the most part live in the city. They pay property taxes and purchase goods and services in Vineland and in that way contribute to the overall economic well-being of the community. Today’s economy fuels fierce competition for jobs among communities. VMEU employees provide a solid base of good paying jobs which help to provide stability to Vineland’s economy. In addition, VMEU contributes to the city by paying a significant payment in lieu of taxes which helps to control the local tax rate.
And then there are the intangibles. These same skilled utility employees are also skilled citizens who can be counted on to participate in a variety of community events and initiatives. These range from the lighting of the little league fields to helping to spruce up Vineland for the holidays. In this way, the utilities have become integral to the traditions and values of the community.
The neon lighted sign over the power plant located in downtown Vineland had been a noted landmark to Vineland citizens for many years. Over the last 20 years the sign had fallen into disrepair and became inoperable. It was unplugged; it was dark. Some feel the sign’s condition paralleled the condition of the entire utility as it degraded over the same time period. Four years ago the sign was repaired and relit as a symbol of the renewed life of the utility.
First published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 89, Number 7, October 2012