‘Co-ops in the Classroom’ teaches kids about public power, energy use

Electricity is as much a part of life as reading, writing and arithmetic, so it makes sense to teach about it in school, something East River Electric Power CooperativeRedirecting to a non-government site does with “Co-ops in the Classroom.”Redirecting to a non-government site

East River Education and Outreach Specialist Jennifer Wolff (left) enlists the teacher to demonstrate electrical potential with a Van de Graff generator for the fifth-grade students at Groton Area School. East River member system Northern Electric Cooperative scheduled the presentation. (Photo by East River Electric Power Cooperative)

East River Education and Outreach Specialist Jennifer Wolff (left) enlists the teacher to demonstrate electrical potential with a Van de Graff generator for the fifth-grade students at Groton Area School. East River member system Northern Electric Cooperative scheduled the presentation. (Photo by East River Electric Power Cooperative)

Through its members, the generation and transmission co-op offers the program free to school districts in its service territory in eastern South Dakota and western Minnesota. The curriculum teaches students at every grade level about electrical safety, generation, energy efficiency and conservation. It also offers an opening to talk about cooperative business and the value of cooperation.

In the past year alone, Education and Outreach Specialist Jennifer Wolff has visited 79 schools and delivered 110 presentations. “A real testament to the program is how many teachers reach out and request to have us come back,” Wolff observed.

Flexible lessons
Wolff created “Co-ops in Classrooms” five years ago to supplement “The Story Behind the Switch,” a school program its wholesale power supplier, Basin Electric Power CooperativeRedirecting to a non-government site, provides to its members.The Basin program is tailored mainly to the fifth grade level, but “Co-ops in the Classroom” offers a more flexible curriculum that East River members can customize for any grade level.  

A Montrose Elementary student pedals hard to light up a display for Jennifer Wolff during a presentation arranged by Southeastern Electric Cooperative.  (Photo by East River Electric Power Cooperative)

A Montrose Elementary student pedals hard to light up a display for Jennifer Wolff during a presentation arranged by Southeastern Electric Cooperative. (Photo by East River Electric Power Cooperative)

In its first incarnation, “Co-ops in the Classroom” had four separate modules: safety, energy efficiency & conservation, generation and economics. Over time, the separate programs merged into one presentation, which Wolff varies depending on the audience and the school’s needs. “With hundreds of presentations under my belt, I usually have a pretty good understanding of what will or won’t work well for a particular audience,” said Wolff. “For example, with middle school students, I tend to present in more of a ‘game show’ type format. High school students do well with activities where they can be broken into smaller groups. Early elementary students require lots of ‘ooh and ah’ moments to hold their attention.”

Wolff has presented the program to all age groups, but it seems to be most popular with the fourth- and fifth-grade crowd. “This is my favorite age group to present to,” she admitted. “They are old enough to really understand the concepts, still easy to impress and eager to participate.”

Member systems take lead
The program was designed to be a relationship builder for its member systems, so Wolff likes to be accompanied by a co-op representative when she gives the presentations. The local representatives might talk a little bit about their job at the co-op and answer questions after the presentation. Linemen are particularly effective, she added, because they can show off safety equipment and tools, and have more “street cred” when talking about the dangers of electricity.

Requests for presentations that focus specifically on safety are common. Last year, FEM Electric AssociationRedirecting to a non-government site asked for a safety presentation aimed at high school students after some teenagers were involved in a couple of near-contact incidents while helping on a farm. FEM worked with Wolff to schedule the presentation at high schools throughout the system’s service territory.    

Each distribution cooperative works with local schools a little differently to schedule presentations. Wolff makes it easy by blocking off days in her calendar so the co-ops can offer the schools a choice of days. “Basin takes theirs to nine states so they require a longer lead time for scheduling,” Wolff pointed out.  “I do have periods that are scheduled quite tightly, but I can usually fit in a last-minute request for a presentation if one arises.”

The member systems also take the lead on promoting the program to their customers with a little help from marketing letters and flyers provided by East River. Coverage in local publications has helped to spread the word about “Co-ops in the Classroom.” In some cases, word of mouth is enough to stir up interest among teachers who are always happy to have a state content-approved science lesson.  

For community, for children
As valuable as the energy and science lessons are, each presentation makes a point of emphasizing safety. There is no way to guess what incidents might have been avoided by showing students how electricity moves or explaining the dangers, not just of power lines, but substations, pad-mount transformers and even household electric outlets. “If even one life has been saved by safety education, that’s a benefit you can’t quantify,” Wolff declared.

“Co-ops in Classrooms” is not about achieving measurable goals, after all.  “The program is another way for our distribution systems to show their support and commitment to their communities,” said Wolff. “Often, parents of students in the classes are members of the co-ops, and the schools may be members too. And, it is a great opportunity to educate the next generation of potential members and employees about cooperatives.”

Upcoming deadlines

Get ready for the 2014 GRC Annual Meeting, GEA Expo

GEAexpoJoin the Geothermal Resources CouncilRedirecting to a non-government site (GRC) and the Geothermal Energy AssociationRedirecting to a non-government site (GEA) in Portland, Oregon, Sept. 28 to Oct. 1 for the geothermal energy industry’s largest annual gathering.

The theme for the 38th GRC Annual Meeting & GEA Geothermal Energy Expo is Geothermal: A Global Solution. In keeping with the theme, internationally known geothermal energy experts will be among the scientists, producers, renewable energy industry stakeholders, regulators, utilities and business leaders participating in discussions and presentations.

The agenda will offer technical, policy and market conference sessions; educational seminars; tours of local geothermal and renewable energy projects; and numerous networking opportunities. The trade show brings together system and equipment vendors and other trade allies from around the world to share the latest in products, services, technologies and solutions. Entrance to the Expo Hall is included with registration for the annual meeting.

Randy Manion, Western’s Renewable Resources Program manager, hopes Western customers will take the opportunity to learn more about this base-load resource. “Geothermal energy can help utilities meet their environmental goals and mandates,” he explained. “The earth’s heat is available everywhere, and the diverse technologies for harnessing it are improving rapidly.”

Explore before expo
Newcomers to geothermal energy may want to arrive in Portland a few days early to take advantage of pre-meeting field trips. Discover how ancient volcanic activity created the fertile wine country of the Willamette Valley, or how the destructive force of Mount St. Helens is still shaping the region. Learn about the game-changing technology of enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) at Altarock Energy’s Newberry Volcano Demonstration project. Or stay on to see geothermal energy in action at a post-meeting tour of the Klamath Falls campus of the Oregon Institute of Technology, home of the world famous Geo-Heat CenterRedirecting to a non-government site.

Attendees who are actively considering undertaking a geothermal project can delve into the nuts and bolts of development at pre-meeting workshops. Basic Introduction to Geothermal Systems and Exploration Strategies, on Sept. 26-27, examines the basic dynamics of geothermal resources and how to explore for them. Also scheduled for Sept. 26-27 is Geothermal Leasing, Unitization and Water Use Legal Issues, and exploration of the laws and issues associated with permitting and developing geothermal projects.

Celebrating achievement
The GRC Annual Meeting wraps up with the Awards Luncheon on Oct. 1, where the Geothermal Resources Council recognizes outstanding contributions to the industry. The GRC Awards honor distinguished colleagues in the geothermal community for achievements in advocacy, resource development, design, engineering and construction.

Moving from science to art, the 35th Annual Amateur Photo Contest is showcasing artistic pictures of geothermal energy in its many forms including energy production, EGS, direct use and geothermal heat pumps. Winning entries will be displayed before the Opening Session, posted during the GRC Annual Meeting and published in the GRC Bulletin, and will become part of the GRC photo library.

More work, play
Technical sessions will cover financing, exploration, case studies, regulatory issues, power operations, direct use systems and utility and transmission issues—just to scratch the surface.Check the meeting website for the full agenda.

Outside of the sessions, attendees will have the chance to unwind and network with other professionals while enjoying a unique and beautiful city. The popular Charity Golf Tournament, on Sunday, Sept. 28, and the GRC Annual Banquet on Sept. 29, promise to make memorable use of Portland amenities.

If this sounds like a great way to find out how an abundant clean energy resource might fit into your energy portfolio, make plans to attend the 38th GRC Annual Meeting & GEA Geothermal Energy Expo.

Ideas welcomed at 2014 Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange

With more than 110 utility and energy industry professionals already packing their brief cases for the Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency ExchangeRedirecting to a non-government site (RMUEE), you may want to take a look at the agenda to see what is attracting such a crowd to Aspen, Colo.

Western Administrator Mark Gabriel was a keynote speaker at the 2013 RMUEE. (Photo by RL Martin)

Western Administrator Mark Gabriel was a keynote speaker at the 2013 RMUEE. (Photo by RL Martin)

Admittedly, scheduling this popular conference for Sept. 24-26 puts it at the height of Colorado’s fall color season, but the real magnet is the diverse and packed agenda.

Now in its eighth year, the RMUEE is the regional conference for the people who design and deliver energy-efficiency programs to residential and business consumers. Look for utility and government program managers to share the speaker’s podium with trade allies who support those programs with cutting-edge products and services. Experts in marketing, finance and technology will weigh in on best practices alongside the people who turn the practices into action—and results!  

Something to talk about
Veterans of past RMUEEs are no doubt looking forward to lively discussions in which they are the “thought leaders.” Newcomers are always welcomed and may only need a little introduction to prepare for sharing their experiences, expertise and opinions with colleagues. The roundtable discussions that open the RMUEE on Wednesday morning are just the thing to put everyone at ease. Representatives from City of Aspen UtilitiesRedirecting to a non-government site, City of Fort Collins UtilitiesRedirecting to a non-government site, Platte River Power AuthorityRedirecting to a non-government site, Poudre Valley Electric CooperativeRedirecting to a non-government site and Colorado Springs UtilitiesRedirecting to a non-government site will stir up dialogue about the challenges that are most on attendees’ minds.

The afternoon sessions highlight specific topics including energy efficiency education, program integration and financing. While these presentations are more structured than roundtable discussions, questions, answers and observations are always encouraged.

The dual-track sessions on Thursday morning break down barriers even more with smaller group presentations. Choose between the residential track and the commercial track, but don’t be surprised to find yourself wishing you could be two places at once.  Don’t worry—you can ask your colleagues what you missed and fill them in on your session choices over lunch. In the afternoon, the whole group will reunite to talk about collaboration, system and building technology and program evaluation and evolution.

Friday brings a change of pace with the return of last year’s popular and fast-paced Switch~TalksRedirecting to a non-government site. Speakers have five minutes and 20 slides to share their thoughts on energy efficiency, renewable resources, the latest technology or anything else that interests them. The RMUEE closes with a screening of the documentary “Watershed,”Redirecting to a non-government site about the management of the Colorado River. This movie is a must-see for anyone who is involved in the delivery of electricity or water in the dry Rocky Mountain region.

And that’s not all
You will undoubtedly hear comments during the sessions that call for more discussion, but proceedings have to move along. Hold those thoughts for the leisurely meals, refreshment breaks and social hours scattered liberally throughout the RMUEE. Any past attendee will tell you that the networking opportunities are just as educational—and sometimes more so—than the formal presentations.

The poster session on Wednesday evening will introduce some new ideas in tasty, bite-sized portions, along with tasty, bite-sized hors d’oeuvres. Grab a beverage and a snack and quiz your colleagues about their mini-presentations on subjects ranging from heat pumps and building-manager training to social media and what it means to be an energy services provider.

Thursday night attendees repair to downtown Aspen to enjoy more socializing. Many a partnership and project have been hatched over a beer or a good meal at one of the city’s fine drinking and dining establishments.

Special guest stars
As usual, exciting keynote speakers will be contributing fresh insights and provocative points of view to the mix. Suzanne Shelton of The Shelton GroupRedirecting to a non-government site sustainability marketing firm returns as opening keynote speaker on Wednesday. Learn what Americans really think about energy efficiency and how those lessons applied to the firm’s recent campaigns, Avoid the Energy DramaRedirecting to a non-government site and FiveworxRedirecting to a non-government site.

James Mandel of the Rocky Mountain InstituteRedirecting to a non-government site will speak on Thursday about the institute’s partnership with the city of Fort Collins to reduce carbon emissions on a community-wide level. The groundbreaking project is yielding, among other things, a new business model for utilities of the future.

Clearly, the program committee, which includes several Western customers as well as Energy Services Manager Ron Horstman, is not afraid to lay the ideas on thick. The RMUEE is where program managers can take a break from the daily challenge of keeping the lights on to imagine their utility’s future. We hope to see you, and your ideas, in Aspen.

Construction guidebook points way to efficient new buildings

Building energy efficiency into new construction is easier than teaching an old building (or building owner) new tricks. But many designers and builders still need schooling in energy-efficient construction—lessons that can be found in the New Construction GuideRedirecting to a non-government site.

The New Construction Guide from the New Building Institute offers a whole-building approach to achieving deep energy efficiencies in new building projects. (Art by New Building Institute)

The New Construction Guide from the New Building Institute offers a whole-building approach to achieving deep energy efficiencies in new building projects. (Art by New Building Institute)

The latest offering from the New Building Institute’sRedirecting to a non-government site (NBI) Advanced Buildings tool suite is a whole-building, step-by-step approach to new commercial construction projects that result in efficiencies up to 40 percent higher than conventional buildings. Building design and construction professionals can reference the New Construction Guide to define high performance in building envelope, lighting, HVAC, power systems and controls.

Learn from experts
The people behind the guide know how to achieve efficiencies without adding costs. The primary authors include NBI’s Technical Director Mark Frankel, Program Manager Sean Denniston and Project Manager Mark Lyles. Collectively, they bring decades of experience in improving building performance and strengthening building codes nationwide.

Technical contributions came from experts across the construction and building systems industry. The fields of energy efficiency and resource conservation, design, research and policy are well represented along with specific systems such as lighting, heating and cooling and building controls. The ASHRAE 90.1 standardRedirecting to a non-government site, the International Energy Conservation CodeRedirecting to a non-government site and the Consortium for Energy EfficiencyRedirecting to a non-government site were referenced for lighting and mechanical equipment performance levels. The guide also ties the measures to utility energy efficiency programs.

Modeling methodology
Underpinning the New Construction Guide is an extensive energy modeling protocol. The authors evaluated energy-efficiency measures using eQuest building energy use analysis software to conduct more than 100,000 modeling runs on prototype buildings.

They applied three to five measures to each building prototype and ran energy use analysis in ASHRAE’s eight identified climate zones represented by 16 US cities. Measures were only included if they offered savings beyond the baseline buildings in most scenarios, or significant savings in specialized cases. Once the most effective individual measures were identified, they were all applied as a package to each building prototype in each climate scenario to get predicted savings for the program as a whole.

Power providers get involved
The New Construction Guide has several utility sponsors who independently modeled the measures and validated the approach and methodology.

Ralph DiNola, NBI executive director, would like to see utilities incorporate the guide into commercial building incentive programs. “For example, some of our utility partners are offering builders dollars per square foot for implementing the guide,” he said. “Those programs have delivered cost-effective energy savings at a lower cost than other utility incentive programs.”

Utilities including ComEdRedirecting to a non-government site and NSTAR Electric and GasRedirecting to a non-government site have worked with builders in their territory to implement measures from the Core Performance Guide, the previous edition of the new guide, in local projects. Energy program administrator Efficiency MaineRedirecting to a non-government site and the transmission and distribution network National GridRedirecting to a non-government site both have building projects in the pipeline that implement the New Construction Guide.

Municipalities that have LEED [Leadership in Energy Efficient Design] requirements for new public buildings will find yet another use for the guide. The United States Green Building CouncilRedirecting to a non-government site allows the program to be used to achieve energy prerequisites and credits for LEED certification, on the version of LEED. 

About NBI
Established in 1997, the New Building Institute is dedicated to improving the energy performance of commercial buildings by providing policy and program direction, and promoting best design practices and available technologies. NBI’s board of directors comprises leaders in the energy efficiency and green building industries, including representatives from utilities like Pacific Gas and ElectricRedirecting to a non-government site.

The Advanced Building program promotes high performance buildings with technical tools and educational resources such as case studies, webinars, reference guides and research findings. Sponsors and supporters include the Department of Energy, Energy Center of WisconsinRedirecting to a non-government site and New York State Energy Research and Development AuthorityRedirecting to a non-government site.

NBI welcomes involvement from utilities. To learn more, contact NBI at 360-567-0950, or visit the speakers bureau for links to presentations.

Webinar introduces tool for comparing efficient building products, technologies

Aug. 27
12 p.m. Pacific Time

Commercial building engineers and designers are often hesitant to incorporate new or underused energy-efficiency technologies and products because, in many cases, they cannot verify the performance claims. To overcome this barrier to adoption, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is collaborating with other agencies to create the Technology Performance Exchange (TPEx).

This web-based database compiles unbiased product energy performance data onpromising energy-efficiency and renewable energy technologies. Consumers, manufacturers, vendors, modelers, researchers and utilities can leverage reliable data to improve their assessments and comparisons of building-related products.

The next free webinar in the “Emerging Technologies Showcase” series highlights the TPEx. Register for the webinarRedirecting to a non-government site to learn more about the web tool’s status and potential, and how utilities, manufacturers and research institutions can further its development. A question and answer session follows the presentation.

Sponsored by Bonneville Power Administration, and supported by Western, the Emerging Technologies Showcase series brings you the latest information about promising energy-efficiency technologies and practices.

All webinars are recorded and available on the Emerging Energy Efficiency Technologies websiteRedirecting to a non-government site and ConduitRedirecting to a non-government site energy efficiency resource.

Congratulations to intelligent utility Mountain View Electric Association

We in Energy Services like to spread the word about our customers’ innovative programs and best practices, but we like it even more when others in the industry take notice. The online news site Intelligent UtilityRedirecting to a non-government siterecently interviewed Mountain View Electric AssociationRedirecting to a non-government site about the cooperative’s new TextPower system for communicating about outages.

MVEA customers are able to opt in to receive text updates about power outages in their area, and to report outages. MVEA also texts status updates to employees, so they have the latest information to give customers who contact the utility by phone. Read the interview to find out how MVEA is using smart communications technology to improve customer service.

Learn more about what mobile communication can do for customer relations and field service at Utility Mobile Enterprise Systems,Redirecting to a non-government site Sept. 15-16, in Phoenix, AZ.

Report: Smart manufacturing to transform U.S. industry

The American Council for an Energy Efficient EconomyRedirecting to a non-government site (ACEEE) has released a new report, The Energy Savings Potential of Smart Manufacturing, to show businesses leaders, utility program administrators and energy managers how to make U.S. manufacturing more energy efficient, productive and competitive. Picking up where the report Intelligent Efficiency: Opportunities, Barriers, and Solutions left off, the study identifies the components of smart manufacturing and defines terms, connecting them with new and innovative ways to manage and save energy.

According to ACEEE, smart manufacturing is set to transform the industrial sector and its use of energy, raw materials and labor over the next twenty years. Information and communication technologies that integrate all facets of the manufacturing process will give everyone in a company the information to make informed, data-driven decisions in real-time. Executives will have will have a panoramic view of productivity and managers will have an in-depth view of production costs, including energy.

An integrated network of devices and systems will be able to predict and anticipate energy needs to produce new savings from manufacturing equipment, systems, processes and facilities. These analytical capabilities could potentially simplify and automate evaluation, measurement, and validation of energy savings for utility energy-efficiency programs, as well. Firms that understand what smart manufacturing means to energy management will find new opportunities to realize value from utility demand response and energy-efficiency programs.

ACEEE offers recommendations to bring down the cost of the technology, to improve data security and to prepare the workforce to use smart manufacturing tools. Partnerships between industry and government will be critical to enabling easier and broader adoption of smart manufacturing. Read the blog post. Source: American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, 7/30/14

Reach small business customers and achieve program success

Free webinar
Aug. 19, 2014

12 p.m. CDT

One area where municipal utilities, electric co-ops and rural community organizers have an edge over their big-city neighbors is in reaching small business owners to help boost individual energy savings and local economic development.

Even in a middle-sized city, it is not too hard to know dozens of your utility’s small business customers. You see them at civic clubs, at church, at your kids’ ball games—or when you visit as a customer for retail or service help.

What a different experience from New York’s ConEdRedirecting to a non-government site. Just a few years ago, the utility admitted to signing up only a few hundred small business customers for energy savings programs from the 250,000 it serves.

So, bask in your small-town communication skills! Imagine how many small businesses you could reach and what a high percentage that is of your total community. But don’t bask for too long. There is a difference between reaching customers and achieving program success. That is subject of Clean Energy Ambassadors’Redirecting to a non-government site (CEA) Aug. 19 Lunchtime Webinar, Lessons Learned about Small Business Energy Savings.

The theme is “Lessons Learned” because there’s no better wisdom than that gained in the field. Moderator Jill Cliburn will be joined by Joni Livingston, Energy Services manager for Missouri River Energy ServicesRedirecting to a non-government site (MRES). The public power joint action agency serves much of CEA territory. Her MRES Bright Energy SolutionsRedirecting to a non-government site program has done a great job of reaching small to medium-sized commercial customers through a variety of channels, including working with local Chambers of Commerce. The program includes seasonal marketing campaigns, including one that is just right for the upcoming fall season.

Participants who don’t come from an MRES community will find Joni’s remarks helpful in customizing their approach for small business customers. Of course, if you are in an MRES community, this could be a timely reminder to tap into the resources that the joint action agency offers.

Cliburn’s presentation will focus on technical tips and advice about customizing the right approach for your community, drawn from Energy Matters for Small Business. The updated guide, authored by Cliburn and published by American Public Power AssociationRedirecting to a non-government site (APPA), has been one of APPA’s top selling resources since it was first released six years ago.  Utilities buy it in bulk to share with their small business customers during energy audits or at meetings with Chambers of Commerce and civic clubs. It is also a “must-have” resource for all utility staff, as everyone from front desk representatives to the linemen should have a reference to answer the questions they face as they mingle with small business people in the community.

Cliburn will highlight five items to answer the question, “What’s changed on the small business energy scene since 2009?” These include changes in the advice you need to give small business energy customers about lighting, controls, and window systems. You’ll also learn more interactive, convenient, and fun ways to turn engagement into action. By the time this lunchtime seminar is done, you should be ready to start a low cost fall campaign that meets both utility and small business goals.

Register today for Lessons Learned about Small Business Energy Savings. There is no cost to participate in the monthly Lunchtime Webinar series. Clean Energy Ambassadors presents the webinars  to highlight issues that affect consumer-owned power providers serving rural areas and small towns in the Great Plains and the West. Discussions are lively and informal opportunities to share ideas with peers. If you have any questions, please contact CEA at 406-969-1040. Source: Clean Energy Ambassadors, 7/30/14

Customer input guides OPPD in reshaping generation portfolio

When the customers of Omaha Public Power District Redirecting to a non-government site (OPPD) talk, the utility listens. More specifically, before making a big move regarding its future, the utility first sought out the opinion of its customer-owners.

Ratepayers talk to OPPD executives about resource options.

OPPD customer-owners attended public meetings to offer comment on the future makeup of their utility’s resource portfolio. OPPD hosted 10 meetings as part of a public process to get input from their ratepayers before making a final decision. (Photo by Omaha Public Power District)

The OPPD board of directors recently approved a proactive plan that dramatically reshapes the utility’s future generation portfolio by retiring three of the oldest coal-fired generating units at its North Omaha Station. The plan is intended to position the utility for compliance with future government regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while preserving its ability to meet customer demand for electricity.

The decision was preceded by an extensive public outreach process, the first of its kind—but not the last—for OPPD. “Our customers have let us know that they want more of a voice in major decisions, especially those involving our coal plants and pending environmental legislation,” explained Senior Media Specialist Mike Jones. “We will definitely be using the process again to make decisions on issues like renewable energy and rate changes.”

Best-laid plan
Retiring the three units at North Omaha by 2016 will significantly reduce emissions and bring OPPD into compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standard. The two remaining generating units will remain on coal but be retrofitted with additional emission controls, and, by 2023, be converted to natural gas. Under the plan, Nebraska City Station Unit 1 will also be retrofitted in 2016.

The plan also calls for the district to reduce its load by 300 megawatts (MW) through customer participation in demand side management (DSM), a strategy that has strong customer support. “The level of interest in DSM and energy-efficiency programs may have been the biggest surprise of the stakeholder process,” Jones observed. “Our customers said they like the programs OPPD already offers but they want to see us do more, including offering  more incentives and providing more education  on how customers can save energy.”

Customers made it clear during the stakeholder process that they understood changes to comply with new environmental regulations could lead to higher energy costs. The approved measure is projected to cost customers somewhere between zero to two percent over a 20-year period, well within ratepayers’ comfort zone. OPPD President Gary Gates expressed confidence that the plan carries forward the district’s commitment to affordability, reliability and environmental sensitivity. “It also continues to provide a diverse generation portfolio, which customers also said was important to them,” he said.

Building the perfect process
Resource planning is hard enough, and actively engaging consumers in the process adds a layer of difficulty. It took time and extensive planning for OPPD to design a public outreach process that gave customers the voice they wanted in the board’s ultimate decision.

In late 2012, the board tasked the corporate communications and marketing department, led by Division Manager Lisa Olson, with organizing the stakeholder process. “It was an organization-wide effort because the decisions being made were going to have such a wide-reaching effect, on OPPD staff as well as its customers,” said Jones.

Starting with community and advocacy groups that had already approached OPPD about wanting a public process, the outreach team invited the public to a series of 10 open house meetings. Announcements appeared in local newspapers, the OPPD newsletter, on the website and in the district’s social media forums. OPPD sent news releases to local media  and made representatives available for interviews. The outreach team also attended community events where they could talk to customers who might not be aware of the upcoming meetings. “If you can think of an avenue of communication, we used it,” Jones recalled. “The most important piece of advice for utilities launching their own public process is to keep the message in front of your customers. Do whatever it takes to encourage their participation.”

Go time
The meetings began in February and were held at venues throughout OPPD territory. Representatives also attended community meetings and meetings of nonprofit organizations. Turnouts ran the gamut from a dozen or so attendees to as many as 50, as did the level of engagement. Groups like the Sierra Club and Nebraska Wildlife had definite opinions they wanted to share, while many individual customers just wanted to learn more. “There were people who just wanted to let us know that they didn’t want a lot of change,” Jones noted. “It was critical to the process that everyone who participated felt like we were listening.”

OPPD streamed four of its public meetings live on its website so customers who could not make it to the meetings had the opportunity to submit questions to the utility executives. (Photo courtesy of Omaha Public Power District)

OPPD streamed four of its public meetings live on its website so customers who could not make it to the meetings had the opportunity to submit questions to the utility executives. (Photo courtesy of Omaha Public Power District)

Customers who were unable to make it to one of the meetings could share their input on a website, OPPDListens.com. Launched in March, OPPDListens functioned as an online meeting, walking visitors through the issues and options and letting them leave their own comments. About 500 to 600 visitors left comments on the website.

In addition to having an online forum, OPPD customers were randomly selected for a series of focus groups set up by the consulting firm Market Strategies International Redirecting to a non-government site. Participants from the residential and commercial sectors weighed in on the implications of future generation options and portfolios.

Working with engineering consultant Black & Veatch Redirecting to a non-government site, OPPD compiled the results from the meetings, the website and the focus groups into a preliminary report it presented to customers in April. The goal, according to Jones, was to make the process as transparent as possible. “We wanted customers to see what their neighbors were saying and to understand that, whatever the final decision was, they were driving it,” he said.

The outreach team culled the top five options customers preferred and presented a report to the board. It was up to OPPD management to reconcile the board’s concerns with the customer preferences, and release the final recommendations in May.

Positive outcome
At the end of the careful process, OPPD had a plan that gives the utility the flexibility to balance customers’ concern for the environment with their need for reliable, affordable power. The utility also had another tool for getting customer buy-in on major decisions in the future. “All in all, we are pretty happy with the stakeholder process,” Jones acknowledged. “We may do some fine tuning, but it worked as we hoped.”

The key to that success, he added, is sincerity. “When you give people the chance to say what is on their minds, you have to take it seriously,” Jones said. “If they think it is just for show, you will lose their trust.”  

But then, Omaha Public Power District has already established its reputation for being in touch with its customer-owners, and it showed in the input received during the public process. “It turns out that the board and the customers are pretty much on the same page about the direction OPPD needs to go,” observed Jones. “That is gratifying to know. You can be going down a path that you think is what your customers want and find out that you are out of touch with them. That was not the case this time.”

For more information about the implementation and the value of a formal public outreach process, see Nebraska Public Power District Customer Meeting on Energy Alternatives: Summary of Results Redirecting to a non-government site. Western worked with Nebraska Public Power district to produce this report.