One Square Mile: Keeping the power bills down

PROVIDENCE, RI – Block Islanders are paying some of the highest costs for electricity in the nation. And a small-scale wind farm is planned to go up just off the island to provide some relief to those bills that can climb into the tens of thousands for some businesses. As part of our One Square Mile series focused on Block Island, we knocked on doors to talk with residents about business owners about how they cope with the high cost of power and the controversial wind farm that's promised to cut costs.

A few blocks from a busy hub of shops, over a small bridge, and just around the bend, Merrill Slate and Art Mallick escape the heat inside Slate's gray shingled one car garage. The two men drink coffee and pick at a blueberry muffin as they mull over the day's news.

"How long have I lived here, too damned long," jokes Merrill Slate. He's a native. He worked for years at the Block Island Power Company, which powers the island with generators. Those generators run off diesel fuel brought in by ferry. Slate knows all too well how the weather and transportation costs can affect a person's bill.

"Oh sure, you've got to truck everything in, dear. And it depends on weather, and availability, and the time for good weather to get it here," says Slate. "So there was always a challenge to get it here."

The costs swing from winter to summer and hinge on the price of diesel fuel. Energy costs on the island have reached as high as 62 cents per kilowatt hour. Slate jokes that when the bills went up, his neighbors would give him grief.

"Oh sure, give me hell every day," he says, "you're stealing us blind"

Art Mallick never gave his friend an earful when he got his power bills. He just avoided the mail.

"The exact number, I don't know," says Mallick, "I don't want to look at it because I just look at the bill and yoy!"

But that's life on Block Island, says Mallick, who isn't sure that the five-turbine wind farm planned for just off the coast will help things.

He wonders how there will be power if there's no wind. Work on the wind farm is scheduled to start next year, and Mallick wonders what the construction costs will be.

"And whether the person putting them in eventually gets the set up and doesn't sell them to someone else and we are left holding the bag," says Mallick.

Across the street, Valerie Constantine has her windows wide open. Some residents say their power bills can climb into the hundreds of dollars during the summer. Constantine has never seen that kind of a bill.

"Well, it's not that bad, but I think if you ever try to have air conditioning or anything," Constantine says. "But we have gas dryers and gas stoves and try to use as little electricity as possible."

At Old Field Automotive, Richard Mazzur gets spooled up just thinking about his power bill. Mazzur, known on the island as Dude, riffles through his filing cabinet for his most recent power bill. It's $204.63, a lot for a shop his size, he says. What eats him up more than anything is a charge tacked on to his bill.

"They fine me $42.20 every month I go over a limit," says Mazzur, "but they won't tell me what the limit is, how many kilowatts per hour that it's costing me."

He's been fighting this with the Block Island Power Company for years. Now he's hoping the wind farm will at least cut his power bill in half.

"Believe it or not I'm trying my hardest to conserve energy," he says. "I mean yes I need my air compressor, I have a couple of little refrigerators, I leave one light on all day above my desk."

Business owners like Dude take a big hit on Block Island, especially in the summer when the tourists pour in. The grocery stores are known to rack up bills in the tens of thousands to keep all the freezers running. Cliff Payne of Payne's Dock says his power bill runs around $40,000 a month in the summer, costing him about $100,000 for the season.

The boats docked at his marina just keep getting bigger, Payne says, one of them has six air conditioning units on board. A boat like that plugs in to his docks and starts sucking up a lot of electricity. He has to be careful how much of his power costs he passes on to his customers.

Poor Man's Pub owner Brenna Audino grapples with striking that same delicate balance.

"When people come here from the mainland, especially because of our name Poor People's Pub, people expect a certain level of inexpensive options," says Audino.

Her power bill is $5,000 a month during the summer. In the winter she offers a limited menu and avoids powering up the griddle and the fryer. Mazzur, who owns the auto shop, closes for the winter. Audino doesn't have that luxury.

"To pay rent, to pay our bills and to pay utilities we can't unfortunately save enough money in the summertime to foot the bill all winter," she says. "It would be a nice thought some day but for now we have to stick it out."

Whether it's the wind farm or something else, Audino says Block Island needs to find a solution to its high energy costs, and soon. Business isn't what it used to be she says, and something needs to be done so everyone can survive on the island.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Merrill Slate died in his sleep just a few days after being interviewed for our story.

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