Public Power Magazine

Gearing Up for a New-Era Economy


From the May 2013 issue (Vol. 71, No. 3) of Public Power

Originally published March 19, 2013

By Jeanne LaBella
Senior Vice President, Publishing
March 19, 2013

The Chrysler manufacturing plant in Newark, Del., was one of the casualties of the economic downturn that slammed the United States in 2008. The plant had operated since 1951, first as a site for making U.S. Army tanks, later as a car production plant. Newark served as the birthplace for some of the automaker’s most beloved models—Valiant, Dart, Aspen, LeBaron and Durango. At its peak, the plant employed more than 5,000. But by 2005, only 2,115 people worked there. By 2008, only 1,100 workers remained and by year-end those jobs were gone, too.

Recovery has found its way to Newark. The University of Delaware purchased the Chrysler site and is redeveloping it into a new center for Science, Technology and Advanced Research—to be known familiarly as “STAR.” Bloom Energy, manufacturer of solid oxide fuel cells known as “Bloom Boxes,” is one of the first companies to occupy the new space. The Newark site will be Bloom Energy’s first manufacturing site outside of California. Once it is fully operational, the Bloom Energy plant will be a 9-MW load for the city of Newark Electric Department.  The company will become one of the city’s largest electricity customers, second only to the university, which today accounts for a third of the city’s 92-MW load. The company is expected to begin producing Bloom Boxes in Delaware before the end of 2013. 

The recession was a bit of a welcome respite for Newark Electric Director Rick Vitelli and his staff. Until 2008, the utility was engaged in a race to keep up with rapid growth, mostly due to construction of new homes. The economic dive engendered an opportunity to make infrastructure improvements on Newark’s electric distribution system.

Like many public power utility managers, Vitelli has spent nearly his entire career at the city-owned utility. He joined the utility staff in 1985, just a few years after he earned his electrical engineering degree from the University of Delaware. He was appointed electric director 18 years ago.

“When I came here, none of the equipment in the field was identified,” Vitelli said.  “Switches didn’t even have switch numbers, poles were not numbered. We used to refer to poles by the name of the person who lived in the nearest house.”

Newark Electric Department Director Rick Vitelli, right, confers with Assistant Electric Director Sam Sneeringer. Photo by Melissa Grimes-Guy

Back in the 1980s, Vitelli launched the utility’s efforts to modernize. He assigned numbers to all of the switches and poles on the city’s electric distribution system, then convinced the city manager to purchase a geographic information system, which allowed the utility to create system maps. Now, utility staff members know where the lines are. Over the years, Vitelli has expanded the utility’s tree-trimming routine to the point where every tree is inspected and pruned at least once every four years, which has greatly reduced power outages.

Other investments in new equipment have further bolstered the utility’s reliability and efficiency. A new backyard bucket truck, small enough to pass through a three-foot gate, enables crews to access overhead lines that are not adjacent to city streets. Crews and contractors have used infrared cameras to inspect aerial lines and commercial pad-mounts on a rotating basis. 

“The infrared camera inspection identifies all of your problems before they happen,” he said.

Newark crews also installed lightning arrestors every 1,500 feet on its overhead lines and put animal guards on its transformers.

The payoff from years of system improvements was evident last October when Superstorm Sandy pummeled the eastern seaboard. Only 32 of Newark’s 12,500 electricity customers lost power, and for less than two hours. Communities in neighboring New Jersey and farther north, on New York’s Long Island, were without power for days or weeks.

The Newark utility’s journey into automation will reach its apex next year.  By the end of 2013, Vitelli expects to have 90 percent of the city’s circuits on the new supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system. Meanwhile, new smart meters will be installed for every electric and water customer in the city under a $12 million guaranteed-savings performance contract with Honeywell. Since getting the contract, Honeywell has tested more than 250 water meters in the city and found them to be operating at an average of 91.7 percent accuracy.  Revenue benefits and operational savings will cover the cost of both water and electric smart meters and the smart meter system within 15 years. The mayor and council have dedicated the funds to this purpose. As a bonus, the city will have a new wireless network once the smart meter implementation is completed.

The Newark City Council approved the project in December and installation is under way now. Work is expected to be completed by summer 2014.

Electric utility crews are deeply involved in the smart meter rollout, since they have the bucket trucks. While the new electric smart meters will leave the city’s electric utility outfitted with the latest metering technology, the change-out will not result in dramatic savings on the electricity side.

“We changed half of our electric meters six years ago,” said Vitelli. The utility was installing radio-read meters, which allowed metering personnel to do drive-by readings. “We were putting them in and suddenly smart meter projects started being installed,” he said.  “The previous finance director and I both agreed that maybe we should stop for a few years—not keep buying older technology.”

It was a wise decision, he said.  The smart meter project is among the biggest infrastructure projects ever undertaken by the city and opens the door to increased opportunities for efficiency gains in other areas of the organization.

One of the biggest challenges facing many municipal utilities today—meeting future workforce needs—is checked off on Newark Electric’s list.

“We went through the ‘everybody’s retiring’ phase about five years ago,” Vitelli said. The utility had to replace a foreman who had worked for the city for 42 years. The new foreman, himself now a 41-year veteran on the utility staff, worked with Vitelli to strengthen hiring and training standards.

“Hiring people is one of the scariest things that I as a manager can do,” Vitelli said. “That person more than likely is going to be here a long time.” 

Newark Electric Department focuses on hiring lineworkers who are physically and mentally able to handle the job.  “If you can get good people and train them right and hang on to them, then you’re in good shape,” he said.  

Newark’s screening process for lineworkers includes physical tasks. Lineworkers must be able to climb a pole.  Any new hire is placed on probation and must complete a pole-climbing class within three weeks or face dismissal.

“You don’t want to have your A team and your B team and make your A team work like a sweat hog while the B team stands by unable to perform,” Vitelli said. “Today, my foreman can take any combination of first class lineman and second or junior and put them in a truck without losing any capabilities.  That’s how he set it up—he was part of the A team for 20-some years.  He’s determined not to let that happen again.”

Vitelli and his supervisory staff are very particular about line crew hires.  “If we don’t think any of the candidates have the right skills, we’ll just go back out again.” In years past, individuals from other city departments who did not really want to be lineworkers were often pushed into the field, with less than satisfactory results, he said. Newark has 13 lineworkers.  All but four—the most experienced ones—have completed a lineworker training program offered by Northwest Lineman College. “That’s a big thing; they now understand more of what’s going on,” Vitelli said.

The one-time site of a Chrysler manufacturing plant is undergoing redevelopment to become “STAR,” a center for Science, Technology and Advanced Research. Photos by Melissa Grimes-Guy.

The addition of the STAR campus to Newark’s load is a huge development for the city.  The city will build a new substation to serve the new load. Working with the University of Delaware to assure a highly reliable supply of electricity to the campus and the new STAR center will occupy a sizeable amount of time for Newark electric staff over the next couple of years. The electric distribution system on the university’s main campus was designed in the 1960s.  There are no loops on the circuitry to isolate problems or reroute power flow when a circuit goes out. “If a circuit goes out, all the buildings on the street go out,” Vitelli said. For the STAR center, Newark crews took a feed off the utility’s sub-transmission system to boost reliability.  That gives the center alternate transfer capability, so if the power goes out it will switch in five seconds to another circuit.  Utility staff have also given university staff other suggestions for making the campus distribution system more robust.

The city of Newark relies on the electric utility for much more than electricity. The utility provides nearly 70 percent of the city’s annual operating budget each year through a $10 million transfer from the utility to the general fund.. Delaware is a low-tax state. Nine of the 10 largest cities in the state own and operate an electric utility. Wilmington, the state’s largest city, does not have a utility, but residents there pay a wage tax. Municipal utility customers, including the University of Delaware, raised concerns  about high electricity rates to the Delaware Legislature last year..  As a result, transfer amounts have been restricted to 2012 totals. “In addition, Newark also capped its margin at  20 percent,” said Vitelli. The city anticipates the need to rely less on utility transfers in years to come.

The university, a state institution, owns 40 percent of the land in the city— all of it exempt from property taxes. This long-term issue is being brought to the Legislature’s attention through efforts to include Newark in the state’s payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program.

Another state mandate requires Delaware utilities to meet 25 percent of energy needs with renewable resources by 2025. Here, the municipal joint action agency, Delaware Municipal Electric Corp., plays a big role by planning and coordinating the green energy activities of all nine of its members. The Bloom Boxes that will be manufactured in Newark may be part of the renewable resource equation, Vitelli said. The fuel cells convert natural gas to electricity through an electrochemical reaction, a process that involves no combustion. Solar energy is also poised to assume a bigger role in Newark. Today, about 45 customers have rooftop solar generators on their homes. Efforts are underway now, under DEMEC’s supervision, to install a 200-kW solar system in a brownfields area in Newark.

As it is for many public power utilities, the Newark Electric Department’s history and existence is interwoven with the local economy. Electric generation and distribution came to Newark in 1890, when the Theodore C. Knauff Co., a manufacturer of pipe organs, began selling its surplus electricity to local businesses and residents.  But the company was apparently ill-suited to run a utility on the side. In 1892, the city purchased the electric facilities from the company for $3,200. 

“Knauff’s misfortune forced the council of Newark to make what can probably be described the best investment in its history,” wrote a local historian in 1983.

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