The gist: LUS is in the early stages of pursuing a pilot program to add electric vehicle charging stations to its portfolio and buy electric forklifts for its warehouse.
If funded, the pilot could put chargers at the Target shopping center on Louisiana Avenue but isn’t limited to that location. Interim LUS Director Jeff Stewart says work is very much preliminary and not related to surveys underway for a Tesla supercharger at the same site. LUS is also researching EV policies and approaches in major regional markets to write a local one.
LUS applied for funding through Louisiana’s allotment of VW’s settlement program, which is paying billions in atonement money for the German automaker’s use of software to cheat emission standards tests on its diesel fleet. As part of its settlement with the EPA, VW established a $2.9 billion trust to pay for programs that reduce diesel emissions. Louisiana received around $20 million from the trust. It’s that pot of money LUS is after for the pilot.
This is the second time LUS applied for the VW money. The utility’s first attempt at funding through the trust wasn’t successful. A second round was opened this year, according to Stewart, and last week LUS turned its application, which asks for more than $150,000 in grants.
LUS is at the beginning stages of a major power planning process called an integrated resource plan. Stewart says LUS has shortlisted four consultants to assist LUS on the IRP and will bring those candidates in for staff presentations in the coming weeks. He’s hoping to have a contract in place by June. A big part of the IRP is projecting the future of power demand, i.e. how much electricity the city will need, and how to meet the demand. Stewart has positioned this iteration of the process to be more public than previous go-rounds, saying in recent interviews that he wants the public to help create a vision for the future of the electric utility.
Meanwhile, automakers are investing billions in EV fleets. Lafayette has been criticized for lagging behind national (and even regional) adoption of EV infrastructure. Industry movement is now difficult to ignore. VW itself plans to spend $80 billion over the next five years developing EVs and outfitting them with batteries, according to The Economist, ultimately producing 20 million electric cars in the next decade.
Why this matters. EVs are only one disruption the utility industry faces. Bernhard Capital Partners criticized LUS’s lack of innovation and flexibility when the private equity firm pursued purchasing the right to manage the utility. LUS has been more proactive in the last couple of years exploring renewable energy and other disruptive technologies, contracting wind power from the midwest last year, but nevertheless has been cautious to dive into a fast-moving space.
The decision was made “in response” to the ongoing discussions of the company’s proposal and the “importance” of the city’s decision whether to accept it.
The gist: Swimming upstream of public opinion, the firm making a play to manage LUS is widening the reach of its pitch. Bernhard Capital Partners/NextGEN Utility Systems hung up a banner, so-to-speak, with a temporary outreach center in Downtown Lafayette.
The outreach center puts boots on the ground for a growing PR campaign. This week, NextGEN also created a Facebook page and launched a phone campaign to go along with its digital billboards billing a $1.3 billion offer. Talking points from the phone campaign emphasize the $140 million in up front cash included in the deal, rate reductions and the company’s intention to site its headquarters in Lafayette. NextGEN is renting space in the Omni Center on Jefferson Street for the next two and half weeks, according to Omni Center owner Robert Guercio.
Could environmental progressives be a base of support? In a phone interview, Guercio, a Downtown entrepreneur and sustainability advocate affiliated with Bayou Electric Vehicles, bubbled with enthusiasm about the possibilities NextGEN offers, particularly in modernizing LUS. Guercio said he fought LUS for two years to get LED lighting Downtown and that the utility dragged its feet on renewable energy.
“Why is it so hard for us to do innovative things? Government is kind of clunky sometimes,” Guercio said. “This is their [NextGEN’s] specialty. We’re in business to rent the facility, but I’m also supportive of an effort to modernize LUS.”
LUS announced a $7 million LED streetlight program in 2017. The city owns its 18,000 streetlights, and the Public Works Department pays LUS for electricity and maintenance (replacing bulbs and poles, etc.). In what could be argued was an innovative approach, LUS agreed to fund the program up front because Public Works could not afford to do so. Because LEDs are cheaper to run than the city’s existing lamps, LUS will continue to charge Public Works the contract price for the more expensive conventional lighting until it recoups its $7 million investment.
Bayou Electric Vehicles team has twice unsuccessfully sought funding for Lafayette’s first EV charging station via local pitch competition 24 Hour Citizen Project. Jeff LeBlanc, who made the pitch at the event this year, said that NextGEN will give $3,000 to an upcoming fundraiser, enough for BEV to finally get Lafayette’s first EV charging station placed in front of The Wurst Biergarten on Jefferson St., another Guercio-owned operation.
LeBlanc said BEV’s sole issue is proliferating electric vehicle infrastructure in Lafayette, and it won’t be making any sort of formal statement on third party management of LUS. Speaking for himself, LeBlanc said he’s skeptical of the terms of NextGEN’s proposal, particularly the 40-year contract, though he shares some of Guercio’s frustration.
“LUS had every opportunity to get [Lafayette’s first EV charger] this done over the past two years,” he said.
NextGEN’s critiques of LUS echo others from renewable energy advocates. And that could be why the company might find common ground there.
Who, what, when and how. It’s really unclear what NextGEN’s path to success is. Even if it successfully courts progressives, who else will carry water for the controversial proposal is yet to be seen. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux took an earful for suggesting that public opposition is uninformed, yet he has not voiced dedicated support for an offer he courted. What details a potential contract would include, beyond the exchange of money, are yet to be seen. When and how this moves past the hot air stage, either by vote of the public, vote of the council or a contract with the administration, is unknown.
What to watch for: Whether any part of Lafayette’s political class joins the campaign. Given the toxicity of the topic from the time NextGEN’s communications with the administration were revealed, there’s been no local political capital spent promoting it, outside of the mayor-president’s call to explore options.
The gist: At last week’s presentation to the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, NextGEN officials indicated with confidence that LUS’s hundreds of employees need not worry about their civil service protection if NextGEN takes over management of the public utility.
“We don’t have any specific intention to replace civil service employees with non-civil service employees,” said Jeff Baudier, who joined NextGEN’s parent company, Bernhard Capital Partners, in April after almost two years with CLECO.
And to make the company’s position perfectly clear, BCP founder Jim Bernhard chimed in: “We don’t want to weasel around it that the civil service employees that do their functions today will remain. And with some attrition we’ll hire another civil service employee. That’s not going to change. It’s not our intent. It’s what we’re committed to.”
Not so fast, says Adam Marcantel, municipal civil service director. “From what I’ve seen, it’s just not going to be permissible,” he says of continued civil service protection, like job security and equitable pay, for LUS employees under the proposed management contract with NextGEN. “That’s not to say a way doesn’t exist out there that I haven’t considered or thought of. But from what I’ve looked at and the ideas I’ve tossed around in my mind in trying to figure out how can we make this work, I don’t see that there’s going to be a resolution as long as the management structure is that the [civil service] employees would answer to an employee of NextGEN.”
Marcantel says civil service employees are able to perform their duties without political pressure. “Civil service positions exist to serve Lafayette Consolidated Government and by extension serve the public. That’s what we do, and that’s why we enjoy the protections that we have,” he explains. “To have civil service employees serving the interests of a private company is not compatible with that.”
What’s next? Marcantel plans to attend Tuesday’s council meeting, where NextGEN will again make its pitch — though email records show that Councilman Jared Bellard asked that the company cut the lengthy presentation it made before the LPUA to a summary of 20 minutes or less. Marcantel is prepared to explain his position to the council.
If the NextGEN proposal moves forward, the director says the municipal civil service board would get involved and likely seek a legal opinion from its attorney, George Armbruster. “I’m waiting to see what happens,” Marcantel says.
File this in the “curious” category: The retention of civil service classification doesn’t appear in NextGEN’s 35-page proposal to manage LUS, a deal that would give LCG $140 million in cash and relieve $184 million in LUS debt, along with providing $920 million in continued in-lieu-of-tax payments and up to $64 million in conditional payouts.
I emailed Baudier late Monday afternoon for clarification on this issue and haven’t heard back.
What’s Jim Bernhard’s bid to run LUS really worth?
Robideaux said through his spokeswoman that conversations with Entergy have continued intermittently since at least June of this year.
Chief among them: Can we get out of it?
Billed as a $4.1 billion deal, the offer is heavy on assumed indirect economic impacts.
Bernhard Capital Partners appears ready to make its pitch to the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority on Oct. 9.
A look into Jim Bernhard’s foray into nuclear energy raises questions about his qualifications to run LUS.
▸ The gist: Emails exchanged between LCG officials and representatives of Bernhard Capital Partners, the private equity firm pursuing management of LUS, show regular sharing of information between the camps beginning in 2017 or earlier, and at one time included an interest in purchasing both the electric division and Fiber. Fiber is not on the table in current discussions; at some point talks turned from a sale to a management agreement.
▸ Robideaux signed a non-disclosure agreement with Bernhard on April 10, 2017, according to Jeff Jenkins, a Bernhard principal. Bernhard and the administration exchanged revisions of the NDA in late January 2017.
▸ Bernhard received a slew of LUS documents throughout 2017 and 2018. Over the summer of 2017, the emails show that now-retired LUS Director Terry Huval sent Bernhard reps copies of Fiber’s depreciation schedules and several months worth of financial statements for LUS. Correspondence shared among Huval, Robideaux and Bernhard reps show a primary interest in the electric system. “From what I recall, the mayor quickly took Fiber off the table, and that was fine with us,” Jenkins said in an interview Wednesday.
Robideaux has described vaguely the genesis of his discussions with Bernhard about LUS, noting in a memo emailed to council members on the LPUA that, after some initial meetings, Robideaux kept Bernhard’s suggestion of a management agreement in his back pocket until March 2018. He also said that LUS “has never been for sale.”
That month LUS Fiber was found to have billed LUS $1.7 million for telecom services that were never used over several years. The discovery triggered an audit by the Public Service Commission, which regulates Fiber.
“With an impending PSC audit, Terry’s planned retirement, and unfunded generation needs, I reopened conversations with Bernhard on a non-binding agreement,” Robideaux says in his memo. However, email records, obtained by The Current via public records request, indicate the conversation was never closed.
In February 2018, for example, Robideaux received a legal opinion from Bernhard that a management agreement would not require a public vote, the emails show.
▸ A value study of LUS matches Bernhard’s interest in both Fiber and the electric division. Robideaux says he commissioned LUS’s engineer of record, NewGen Strategies and Solutions, to do a value assessment of LUS in the spring of 2017, spurred by general interest in the idea of sale he heard while running for office. The resulting study, delivered to LCG in July 2017 and later shared with Bernhard, contemplates a franchise agreement for both the electric division and LUS Fiber — creating the appearance that the assessment was done specifically for Bernhard. Robideaux has not responded to a request for comment.
▸ Bernhard is expected to produce an offer in the next two weeks. Jeff Jenkins, a Bernhard point man in the play for LUS, says the group will turn over an analysis of LUS in the next two weeks and will likely include its offer. The firm has completed is 90-day due diligence study of LUS, which began after Robideaux signed a non-binding letter of intent in April of this year. The firm is considering private management of all three LUS utility systems — electric, water and wastewater.
As part of its plan to take over management of LUS’s electric division, Bernhard Capital Partners is presenting a vision of creating a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Lafayette.