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Electric Dept. chief passes torch, tie

January 16, 2009|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. -- Richard Hamsher retired Friday after more than four decades with Chambersburg's Electric Department, but his signature light bulb tie will remain on the job.

At his retirement luncheon, Hamsher - the Electric Department superintendent since 1986 - handed over the tie to his successor, Ron Pezon. The tie has been a familiar sight at council meetings and special events, such as the dedication of the $20 million Orchard Park generating plant a few years ago.

"Richard came here as a co-op student from Drexel University in the early '60s and he's leaving here with his Medicare card in hand," Borough Manager Eric Oyer said.

During his time as superintendent of the department, Oyer said Hamsher has been instrumental in building the Orchard Park plant; upgrading the distribution system; expanding one substation and building another; negotiating wholesale power contracts; and creating a fiber optic system in the borough.

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Hamsher also was familiar with the arcane regulatory atmosphere of public utilities, something that has gotten more complicated since the state deregulated electricity in 1998, said John Adragna, a regulatory lawyer who represents the borough in Washington, D.C.

A few years ago, wholesale electric power marketing firm PJM Interconnection wanted to impose transmission congestion fees on the borough for using its transmission lines. The $5 million cost would have been passed on to borough customers.

"The borough went to Washington, stood up for its rights and came up with a solution that solved the problem," Adragna said. "It ended up costing much less than that."

Oyer said Hamsher leaves a good team behind and a five-year, $45 million plan for further improvements to the system, the most ambitious of which is a $20 million proposal to build a pipeline from the IESI Blue Mountain Landfill in Scotland, Pa., to the borough. One use of the lower-cost methane gas produced by the landfill could be to supplement the natural gas used to power the generating plants.

There are 35 municipal electric systems in the state, but only Chambersburg can generate its own power, Hamsher said. Orchard Park and the older Falling Spring plant can generate 30 megawatts, Pezon said.

"That represents about half our total load in peak times," Hamsher said.

The borough buys the electricity it does not generate off the grid, but if there were a widespread regional power failure, it could provide power to its 10,500 customers using rolling blackouts, Pezon said.

The economic value of the generation plants, however, comes during those peak periods, when the borough can generate and sell electricity on the grid to offset some of the costs it incurs buying power, Pezon said.

The result has been relatively low electric rates for residents compared to those living outside the town. Hamsher said the difference will widen at the end of 2010 when state-imposed rate caps are removed and costs are expected to increase sharply.

The effect on the borough will be less because of its ability to buy low and sell high, Hamsher said.

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