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Asking before raising rates part of new PUC approach, says CEO

'We're saying 'these are our thoughts, here's an opportunity for you to give us yours' — Rob Brewer
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20180112-PUC President and CEO Rob Brewer-DT
Rob Brewer is settling in to his role as the new PUC president and CEO. Darren Taylor/SooToday

Rob Brewer is embracing his new role as the PUC’s new president and CEO.

Brewer is the former President of Wilderness Environmental Services, a vegetation management company with its Canadian office in the Sault, its U.S. office in Rochester, New York.

A news release issued by the PUC Dec. 4 stated Brewer was chosen to succeed the retired Dominic Parrella as the utility’s president and CEO, and officially took the helm at the PUC Jan. 2, in charge of approximately 180 staff members.

“Things have been great. I’ve had an opportunity to meet the team here and there’s a really nice, fantastic group here, and that’s a nice foundation for the future. I couldn’t have asked for a better group to come into,” Brewer told SooToday in a recent telephone interview.

“There’ll always be things to learn (in delivery of electricity and water to the community),” said Brewer, who estimated he has read through 200 to 300 pages of information a day for over a month in getting up to speed in his new role.

“There is a great team here, really competent folks who have been really supportive and helpful to me.”

With Wilderness Environmental Services, Brewer’s geographic area of responsibility was extremely large, overseeing operations in 16 U.S. states and every Canadian province with the exception of PEI, dealing with the transportation industry in rail and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). 

With the PUC, his focus is now local.

“My travel schedule’s gone from being 40 weeks a year on the road visiting crews and customers to probably three or four weeks, going to conferences,” Brewer said.

Brewer spent his early life in Kingston and Oakville before moving to the Sault, having lived in this community for 14 years after a four-year period in Wawa.  

“It’s the traditional story of a guy coming north and realizing there’s more to life than fighting traffic every day,” Brewer said.

“It’s a really exciting time right now for the PUC, and with the utility industry as a whole.”

“We’re seeing a lot of technological advances but one of them which is very important and relevant to us right now is the Smart Grid,” Brewer said.

The Smart Grid is a software-based tool which will use data to allow utility companies to better plan, finance, visualize and build smart technology projects, which, it is believed, will pass on cost savings to utility customers.

The Smart Grid Analytics and Asset Management Tool will be commercialized and licensed as a product/service to other utilities worldwide.

“We’re currently finalizing the business case for the Smart Grid and go through the normal funding opportunities, with the goal to ensure Sault Ste. Marie is recognized as being the Alternative Energy Capital of North America (a self-proclaimed title the city adopted several years ago).”

“We want to have the most reliable and most intelligent grid around,” Brewer said.

The new PUC boss said community partnerships will continue to be a priority under his watch.

“I’m looking forward to playing a role in strengthening those relationships. A big one for the PUC has always been the United Way. There’s a very grassroots organization within the staff here which has raised thousands of dollars annually for the United Way. That’s something that’s been very important to us.”

A challenge the PUC is facing, one which won’t be overly popular with customers, is a proposed rate increase.

As stated in a news release issued Jan. 9, “PUC Distribution is in the process of filing its Cost of Service application with the Ontario Energy Board (OEB). The Cost of Service application occurs every five years and determines what each LDC (utility) can charge for its distribution rate.”

“In this application, PUC is applying to the OEB for approval to increase its distribution rate. If approved, the average, (750 kWh) residential electricity bill would increase by approximately $2.17 per month, equivalent to a 2.1 per cent increase on the total electricity bill.”

The PUC has invited customers to take part in a survey, available on the PUC website to provide feedback on the proposed increase.

That, Brewer said, is part of the utility’s new approach to better communication with its customers.

“We wanted to have an opportunity to communicate to our customers some of the challenges we’re facing as a utility and some of the things we think we need to do to overcome those challenges.”

“But, at the same time, we’re not saying ‘this is what we’re going to do,’ we’re saying ‘these are our thoughts, here’s an opportunity for you to give us yours,’” Brewer said.

“That’s the goal of that particular survey.”

The current collective agreement with PUC employees also expires in April, Brewer added, but said “we have a wonderful relationship with our staff, and we’re confident that we can come to an arrangement that is mutually beneficial with the folks that work for us. At the end of the day that’s our PUC family.”