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Members of the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative had an opportunity to learn about new projects, talk with employees and board members, and win prizes at the utility's 75th annual meeting at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf on Wednesday night.

“We've made some significant accomplishments in the past year. All of them were planned to move us into the future,” said SMECO President and CEO Austin J. “Joe” Slater Jr.

Slater spoke about the Southern Maryland Reliability Project, a new electrical loop from Calvert to St. Mary's County.

The project will create a continuous 230-kilovolt capacity power line loop around the utility's service area to ensure system reliability.

The $110 million project started in April 2012 in Calvert County. Slater said the utility will begin the river crossing portion of the project in September, stretching two miles of transmission cable under the Patuxent River.

This portion of the project is expected to be completed in December 2014.

Slater said the project is ahead of schedule and under budget.

Slater also spoke of the co-op's first solar power project in Hughesville. The solar farm, he said, generates enough kilowatt hours of energy to power nearly 600 homes.

One SMECO customer asked during the meeting if the power generated from the solar farm was sold to other areas and not benefitting SMECO customers by decreasing their bills.

Slater said, “the solar flows to our benefit.”

He said the power flows into a feeder on Route 5 and helps serve SMECO's load requirements. He said it also helps with the utility's capacity requirements.

Slater said that smart meters, digital meters that have two-way communication, will be installed throughout the service area next spring. The devices collect and record energy usage data, and transmit that data to SMECO at regular intervals.

A SMECO customer asked if the smart meters would raise rates.

Slater said that initially, everyone will be on the same rate schedule, and rates would not change as a result of smart meters. However, Slater said, customers will be offered the opportunity to try a time-of-use rate, where rates go down when demand is low and up when demand is high.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, two people spoke to Slater and the crowd about the possibility of using thorium-based power to keep costs down. James Hollyer of California said he would like to see SMECO invest in thorium because it is “the future of energy.”

Slater said he was not versed in thorium technology, but that SMECO has a team of engineers who will look into the suggestion if they have not already.

Slater took an opportunity to congratulate the utility's employees for reaching a goal of working 1 million hours without a lost-time accident. He also recognized employees for winning the JD Power award for customer satisfaction for the sixth consecutive year.

Other projects discussed at the meeting were the Home Energy Reports program, a new outage map on the utility's website and the new Engineering and Operations Center.

Several attendees won $35 credits on their next bill and $75 cash prizes Wednesday night. One man, George Hayden of Welcome and a seemingly lucky family, took home the grand prize, a retired SMECO truck.

Hayden said he was surprised his name was called. Hayden said his son-in-law, Robert DeLozier of Mechanicsville, won the retired vehicle last year.

“It will be put to good use,” he said.

Donald Schaeffer of Ripley said he has been attending the meetings for many years, having been a SMECO customer since 1970. He said he enjoys learning about the utility and meeting people.

This year, he said he learned the new method of CPR as explained to him by members of the Waldorf Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad and Charles County Emergency Services. He said that learning the hands-only method of CPR was valuable to him.

“If I don't win anything, I won that,” he said.

Attendees elected members of the board of directors to three-year terms: W. Michael Phipps represents Calvert County; Gilbert O. Bowling and Richard A. Winkler, Charles County; and James A. Richards and P. Scott White, St. Mary's County. Votes were cast by 784 members, including 83 absentee ballots.

Slater thanked Joe Stone as he prepares to step down as chairman of the board of directors after five years.

“He is conscientious, intelligent and respectful. It has truly been a pleasure to work with him,” Slater said.

Slater said Stone will continue to serve on the board.

“I'm sure he will provide guidance and support to our next chairman,” Slater said.

gphillips@somdnedws.com