West Oregon Electric Cooperative (WOEC), a Vernonia-based co-op, which serves residents in Columbia, Clatsop, Yamhill, Tillamook and Washington counties, has recently been approved for an $8.4 million investment in the form of a loan to improve electric infrastructure in West Oregon.
The investment, a loan guarantee from the USDA Rural Utilities Service, is at a low interest rate of approximately two percent, according to Bob Perry, General Manager of West Oregon Electric Cooperative. The investment is part of a $1.2 billion USDA Rural Development program, a news release from the USDA states.
The loan guarantee was the result of a two-year process that involved WOEC staff working with their engineering firm to draft a four-year construction work plan, Perry explained. The work plan lays out in detail what WOEC expects to do over the next four years, along with cost estimates of each project in the work plan, according to Perry.
“It’s like a home construction loan, first the plans must be approved by the lender and as certain stages of construction are completed and inspected then a limited amount of funds are released to pay contractors,” Perry said.
The $8.4 million figure is not a lump-sum loan that WOEC will receive but is approval for the cooperative to apply for $8.4 million over the next several years, Daniel Huggett, Chief Financial Officer for WOEC explained. WOEC can apply for up to $8.4 million in loans or less, but cannot exceed that amount, Huggett said.
The investment is in addition to other funds that WOEC has been working to secure over the past several years, including other construction work plan loans the non-profit applied for in 2012 and in 2015, which are now part of the project’s loan base, Huggett said.
The project, to be done from 2019 to 2023, will connect 79 new consumers, fund eight new miles and improve 41 miles of existing line, which includes four transmission miles, according to a press release from the USDA.
“We have systems out there that were built 30, 40 or 50 years ago, it wears out,” Huggett said.
The overall goal of the improvements is to mitigate outage problems and improve system reliability, Huggett said.
According to Huggett, WOEC has identified a number of projects as needing replacement or improvement. Some specific projects include rebuilding the distribution line from the mid substation back down to Vernonia, enabling power to be directed to those members on that circuit. There are also a number of rebuilds proposed in the Yamhill County area, Huggett said.
“Some of it is overhead that we will either redirect along the road to make it easier to maintain or repair as necessary, some of it is going underground as needed to improve system reliability,” Huggett said.
The electric cooperative in Vernonia, formed in 1944, is partly the result of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), created in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to encourage power companies to bring electricity to rural communities by offering low interest federal loans to interested providers, according to the history section of the WOEC website.
Because private power companies were not interested in these loans, rural communities like Vernonia began to organize cooperatively in a system that remains today, the page explains.
“Electric co-ops are a crucial part of our country’s urgent need to improve energy efficiency, both to keep utility bills affordable for rural consumers and to lower energy use overall,” Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said. “This federal investment in West Oregon Electric Cooperative achieves those goals for Oregonians living in our state’s northwest corner.”