SOUTH HADLEY – When voters cast their ballots in South Hadley’s annual municipal election on April 12, there will be only one contested race on the ballot.
Three candidates will compete for two three-year terms on the Municipal Light Board of the South Hadley Electric Light Department, or SHELD: Kurt Schenker, Ronald Coutu and Paul Dobosh. Candidates are presented in the order in which they appear on the ballot.
Elections will take place at South Hadley High School, located at 153 Newton St, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Longtime South Hadley resident Kurt Schenker has served on the City Lighting Council since his first election in 2016. A 35-year employee of Fire District 1 who worked as an EMS coordinator and ambulance director, Schenker said that keeping electricity rates low is its highest priority.
“I’m trying to do everything we can to keep eclectic rates low,” he said.
Schenker, 59, retired from fire service but still works in construction, something he did on the side for many years. He said his past work experience gave him intimate knowledge of South Hadley’s infrastructure and his years of experience on the City Council of Lighting set him apart from other candidates.
“I’m open to listening to everyone’s ideas,” Schenker said. “I strongly believe that everyone should have their chance to speak at least once.”
Schenker said when he was first elected that he really wanted to push for the city to start installing high-speed fiber optic internet, which it did. It attracts more new customers than expected and pays for itself, he said.
“I really want to see the fiber through,” he said. “Regarding the electrical system, we are too redundant in our city, we have a very reliable system.”
There has recently been controversy over the construction of a ‘peak’ plant at Peabody – a 55 megawatt gas combustion facility to which SHELD has contracted about 10% of the energy it will produce at peak times energy consumption during the year. Some have opposed this contract because it is linked to the construction of a new fossil fuel plant.
Schenker said at the time it was thought to be a good idea and the board voted in favor. He said unless another utility buys SHELD’s stake in the plant, the city won’t get out of the project.
“If it works the way they say it is to work…and it lowers the cost of electricity on the peak side, it works for us,” he said. “There are a lot of people who think it’s going to kill the world, but I think they’ve gone too far on some things.”
A resident of the city for nearly four decades, Ron Coutu spent 35 years developing electricity markets for ISO New England, the region’s wholesale electric grid operator. He hopes to continue to use this experience on the City Lighting Council.
“My entire career has been in an industry that’s very much tied to what’s going on with SHELD every day,” he said.
Coutu, 60, retired from ISO New England in 2017 and has since done consulting part-time, including for small wind power projects and the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. The Select Board has him appointed to a vacancy on the Municipal Light Board late last year, and hopes to be elected this month.
Coutu said he will continue to be a strong supporter of SHELD’s fiber optic internet service. He said he also supports the utility’s efforts to implement advanced meters, and he’s committed to working to educate people about the ongoing issues facing SHELD.
One such issue is the construction of a “state-of-the-art” plant at Peabody – a 55-megawatt gas-fired facility to which SHELD has contracted about 10% of the energy it will generate during peak hours of energy consumption during the year. Some have opposed this contract because it is linked to the construction of a new fossil fuel plant.
Coutu said this is not a simple problem, given the complexity of electricity markets where energy is produced and consumed at roughly the same time. He said that it is important to build more wind power, for example, but that it is not possible at present to rely 100% on solar and wind power.
“My goal is to keep educating people,” he said. “I may not change their point of view, but I want them to at least understand why these plants are still under construction.”
A retired professor of chemistry and computer science at Mount Holyoke College, Paul Dobosh has lived in town for five decades and is a member of the Town Meeting. He said he hopes his expertise can help the board tackle the big issues.
“I think sooner or later the lighting panel will have to get involved in buying battery systems,” he said as an example. “I think I would like to push them to get involved sooner.”
Dobosh, 78, said he would like to delve deeper into peak energy demand and understand how it will be affected by future trends such as the rise of electric vehicles and heat pumps in cities. He also said he was interested in making sure SHELD spread the word about the good work they do.
“I think it’s a good organization,” he said of SHELD, noting that he also respects the two people he’s running against. “I think I just bring a somewhat different perspective because of my background in chemistry and even computer science.”
Dobosh said he thinks SHELD has done a “fabulous job” growing its fiber optic internet network and customer base.
Regarding the Peabody Peaker factory project, Dobosh said “we’re kind of locked into it” at the moment. He said residents can still work to ensure no more fossil fuel projects are built and to increase the city’s ability to draw on clean sources. He noted that South Hadley draws electricity from two nuclear facilities, saying that although nuclear power has its own problems, these big problems are “not the ones that are going to bring about the end of the world”, unlike the climate crisis. .
“We need to focus on everything we can do to alleviate the problems associated with climate change,” he said. “Nuclear gives us a kind of lifeboat to go into the future.”
Dusty Christensen can be contacted at email@example.com.