VINELAND — One of the first things Robert Romano did when he became mayor in 2008 was to order the iconic Vineland Municipal Electric Plant sign to be repaired and illuminated.
Dark for years, the sign that towers above the city was lit again for what Romano said was an obvious reason: “When you come down of off Route 55, you see that sign, and it’s a symbol of Vineland,” he said.
But Romano said the sign was also lit to send an important message to residents and the employees who worked for the municipally owned utility: The city would not relinquish control of an electric company that helped power its growth since 1898, and that improvements were on the way.
Four years later, the Vineland Municipal Electric Utility has undergone significant changes.
The plant no longer runs on coal, ending pollution problems that cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in government fines. Equipment was upgraded. New vehicles were purchased. Input from VMEU’s 110 employees on how to better run the operation became the norm. Customer service was modernized and improved.
Earlier this year, VMEU won a national award for creating more new solar-energy watts per customer in 2011 than any other utility in the country.
And last year, the utility underwent the largest capital improvement project in the city’s history: A $60 million endeavor involving construction of a natural-gas power turbine system at the power plant on the 600 block of East Wood Street that generates 60 megawatts of electricity. That turbine went into operation in June.
But that project will be dwarfed by a planned $72 million endeavor involving installation of a second, similar turbine. The turbine will be built at VMEU’s Clayville substation on Lincoln Avenue.
When completed in 2015, the city will have a state-of-the art, environmentally friendly system that will produce all the power VMEU needs, ending the expensive practice of buying energy from a regional power grid system, city Municipal Utilities Director Joseph Isabella said.
“We’ll be set for 30 years,” Isabella said.
And, perhaps, longer: Plans include an eventual third 60-megawatt, natural-gas turbine to handle the city’s future power needs.
There was also another change for which city officials may be most proud: Construction of 100-acres worth of solar generating fields by private companies in the past three years. Five of those companies sell power directly to VMEU under long-term purchase agreements that helped cut the utility’s power-production costs by about $1.3 million annually.
All those changes are paying off for VMEU customers, who have seen three rate decreases since January 2009. Those rates have reduced the electric bills for VMEU’s nearly 25,000 residential customers by an average of about $250. Another rate decrease may occur later this year.
Isabella, 66, who has spent about three decades working in the power industry, is proud of the VMEU’s accomplishments.
“When I came here, I said I wasn’t going to manage a dying organization,” said Isabella, who took full control of the system in 2008. “I said I was going to manage a living organization. We’ve done that.”
But the future was not always bright for the utility, which suffered from years of neglect.
In November 2003, residents approved a referendum that called for a new $57.5 million facility. Plans for that 100-megawatt power plant were scrapped 15 months later when bids for construction costs exceeded $104 million.
Almost three years later, the city considered sharing ownership of the utility and closing at least one of its generators after a study showed the plant had zero net value and most of its equipment was obsolete. The $115,000 study looked at mechanical, economic and environmental factors and determined it would be costly to update the plant.
But residents eventually had their say about the future of the plant. They voted overwhelmingly in November 2008, just a few months after the Romano administration took over city government, to approve the $60 million natural gas turbine project.
Romano said that vote likely helped save the utility and prevented the city from losing an operation it could likely never get back.
That was good news for people like Bruce K. Chalow, a generating station technician at the utility. Chalow, a 49-year-old local resident, said operations at the utility became so bad that he started looking for new job.
“We had no future four years ago,” he said.
Chalow stuck it out through the changes. Now in his 28th year with the utility, Chalow said operational changes, new technology, plant upgrades and a job environment where employee suggestions are welcomed created a more challenging and happy place to work.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” Chalow said.
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