Administrator’s outreach builds bridges between customers, WAPA

[Editor’s note: This story will also appear in the spring issue of WAPA’s Customer Circuit]

Like any private business, WAPA exists to serve its customers. Administrator and CEO Mark A. Gabriel has made a special point of meeting customers since he joined WAPA in 2013. In fact, he says it is one of favorite parts of the job. “Powerful partnerships drive our customer service efforts,” Gabriel explained. “When we listen to customers’ needs and concerns, we learn how we can better serve them. As our industry is evolving so quickly, this is one of the most important things we can do.”

Administrator Mark Gabriel addresses customers at the annual meeting of Missouri River Energy Services.

Administrator Mark Gabriel addresses customers at the annual meeting of Missouri River Energy Services. (Photo by Missouri River Energy Services)

Relationships matter
As it turns out, the customers like it, too. “Mark is the exception to the rule of the private sector pulling the best and the brightest away,” said Brad Lawrence, utilities director for the city of Madison, South Dakota. Lawrence first met Gabriel at the winter customer meeting for Heartland Consumer Power District. You are leaving “He clearly understood the rank and file, and he wanted to hear from ground troops,” added Lawrence, who has a military background. “It’s fairly rare that people at the bottom get a chance to explain things to people at the top.”

Making that effort to get to know customers face to face is an important piece of relationship building that often gets overlooked in today’s business environment. “It shows respect and our customers respond to that,” explained Tracy Thorne, a public utilities specialist in WAPA’s Upper Great Plains Huron office. Thorne has helped to coordinate Gabriel’s attendance at several events in the region and frequently accompanies him.

Answering questions, honoring innovation
Many different kinds of events give Gabriel the opportunity to visit “the field.” It may be a member meeting being held by one of our generation and transmission customers like the one at Heartland, or the gathering of an industry group.

Last summer, Gabriel was a guest at the annual picnic of the Northwest Iowa Municipal Electric Cooperative Association You are leaving where five WAPA customers were in attendance. Members were concerned about impending regulations before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Gabriel wanted to discuss the issues. More importantly, he listened. “He was sympathetic to our concerns,” said Eric Stoll, general manager of Milford Municipal Utilities You are leaving in Iowa. “Gabriel didn’t dismiss us because we are a small customer. That really means a lot to us. We didn’t feel overlooked at all.”

Stoll recalled buzzing around town in a GEM electric vehicle You are leaving with Gabriel. “At one point, we pulled up to a curb and someone thought we were the meter maid,” he laughed.

One trip to Nebraska in 2017 was specifically to honor South Sioux City for delivering impressive innovation along with affordable, reliable power. Gabriel presented the municipal utility with WAPA’s Administrator’s Award. “The vision our customers show never fails to impress me and that is especially true of smaller utilities like South Sioux City,” Gabriel said. “It is a pleasure to meet the people who are doing this work and to bring attention to their accomplishments.”

No occasion too big, small for visit
The spring has been an active time for meeting with customers. At the end of April, Gabriel traveled to Nebraska to speak at the Big 10 and Friends Utility Conference You are leaving in Omaha. The meeting brings together facility and energy managers from Big 10 and other schools and utility professionals to discuss the business of campus utility production, distribution, metering and efficiency. Gabriel gave the keynote address titled “Radical thoughts: Providing value amid a changing energy landscape” to an audience of about 260 individuals.

Thorne noted that the presentation was very well received. “Afterward, I overheard attendees comment about how much they enjoyed Mark’s presentation—and they didn’t know I was from WAPA!” he added. “People had a lot of good questions for Mark and he had the answers. I think if it had been a smaller crowd, the discussion could have gone on for hours.”

While in Nebraska, Gabriel also attended meetings with several municipal utilities in Randolph You are leaving and Fremont, You are leaving and met with Nebraska Public Power District You are leaving in Columbus. Jody Sundsted, senior vice president and UGP regional manager, joined Gabriel for those meetings. Utility staff and consumers in small towns are engaged with the same issues as their counterparts in more urban areas, Sundsted noted. “People had a lot of questions about the Southwest Power Pool, behind-the-meter generation, battery storage,” he said. “They really appreciate getting answers from the administrator himself.”

WAPA’s experience with the Southwest Power Pool was also a topic of interest at Missouri River Energy Services’ You are leaving annual meeting in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, May 10. Gabriel’s presentation highlighted some of the challenges that WAPA and all utilities will be facing in the future, including societal changes, economic challenges and security challenges. He assured the group of continuing value and business excellence through WAPA’s focus on direction, people and performance.

“The members of MRES look forward to the update that WAPA provides each year at the MRES Annual Meeting,” said Joni Livingston, MRES director of member services and communications. “With 59 of the 61 MRES members having WAPA allocations, they are always anxious to hear about WAPA’s rates for the Pick-Sloan region, particularly since those rates have decreased in 2017 and 2018.”

Sundsted observed that Gabriel meeting with customers benefits WAPA, too. “Customers know our brand, but it helps them to put a face with the logo, to see that WAPA is people in the utility business just like them,” he said.

MRES, city of Pierre launch first South Dakota solar farm

The largest solar farm in South Dakota began producing electricity for Missouri River Energy Services You are leaving (MRES) customers, Sept. 30, after officials cut the ribbon on the one-megawatt (MW) array at the Pierre Regional Airport.

Pierre Utilities Director Brad Palmer (left) and Lead Lineman Devin Harris take a moment to enjoy a job well done. Harris was instrumental in tying the airport solar project to the city's distribution system.

Pierre Utilities Director Brad Palmer (left) and Lead Lineman Devin Harris take a moment to enjoy a job well done. Harris was instrumental in tying the airport solar project to the city’s distribution system.

The solar photovoltaic project, a joint effort by MRES, the city of Pierre You are leaving and Geronimo Energy You are leaving of Edina, Minnesota, covers 9 acres and will generate enough electricity to power 200 homes.

MRES CEO Tom Heller acknowledged that while the facility was significant for the state, it was nevertheless intended only as a demonstration project. “It’s not large. It’s the first one we’ve done. We just want to see what it will do,” Heller said in an interview with a local newspaper.

Identifying partners
That does not mean that bringing the project to completion was a simple task, however. “It doesn’t matter if the project is 1 MW or 100 MW, you have the same number of parts from planning perspective,” explained Jeff Peters, MRES director of federal and distributed power programs. “The sheer number of stakeholders who need to be engaged makes the process daunting.”

Peters ticked off a list that included environmental groups, Native American tribes, the Federal Aviation Administration, city and state regulators and the transmission provider (WAPA). “Even the local newspaper could be considered a stakeholder,” he pointed out. “You have to make sure you identify all of the interested parties and keep them updated on your progress.”

The distribution provider—Pierre Municipal Utilities—was on board with the project from the beginning. “Overall, the community was very much in favor of the project and excited to be hosting the largest solar facility in the state,” said Utilities Director Brad Palmer.

Geronimo Energy, developer and owner of “Pierre Solar LLC,” was another piece of the puzzle that slotted in easily. MRES has a relationship with the company that includes power purchase agreements for the output of two wind energy facilities in Minnesota. The innovative 25-year contract Geronimo structured reduced costs for MRES versus a more traditional deal. The entire output of the solar project will become part of MRES’s wholesale power supply for the benefit of its 60 member communities.

Building easier, not easy
After conducting a solar feasibility study with Geronimo in 2015, MRES chose Pierre for its first solar project.

As a solar site, the Pierre Regional Airport offered many advantages, including a surprisingly high number of sun days and its status as a brownfield. “MRES didn’t want to use any cropland for the demonstration, or property that had residential or commercial potential,” explained Joni Livingston, MRES director of communications and member services.

The proposed site also boasted a southward slope with no obstructions and no need to build transmission. “This was a ‘behind the meter’ installation,” said Peters.

Palmer noted that the location was about as close to a substation as you can get, making it easy to tie into the city’s distribution system. The biggest challenge, he added, came in the form of paperwork. “The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] had several requirements, including a “glint and glare” study,” Palmer noted. “Another wrinkle is that the Department of Defense was the previous owner of the airport. There were some strings attached when they deeded it to the city, so that added to the authorizations we needed. Eventually, everyone signed off, so it wasn’t so much a barrier as it was just a matter of lengthy application process.”

Partners and stakeholders turned out in force to cut the ribbon on South Dakota's first utility-scale solar farm. From left: Hunter Roberts, assistant energy director, South Dakota Governor's Office; Jeff Peters, director of federal & distributed power programs, Missouri River Energy Services; Harold Schiebout, president, MRES board of directors; Pierre Mayor Laurie Gill; Tom Heller, MRES CEO; Noel Rahn, chairman of Geronimo Energy; and Leon Schochenmaier, city administrator, Pierre Municipal Utilities. Read more.

Partners and stakeholders turned out in force to cut the ribbon on South Dakota’s first utility-scale solar farm. From left: Hunter Roberts, assistant energy director, South Dakota Governor’s Office; Jeff Peters, director of federal & distributed power programs, Missouri River Energy Services; Harold Schiebout, president, MRES board of directors; Pierre Mayor Laurie Gill; Tom Heller, MRES CEO; Noel Rahn, chairman of Geronimo Energy; and Leon Schochenmaier, city administrator, Pierre Municipal Utilities. Read more. (Photo by ©2016. Patrick Callahan).

Up, running
Now that the Pierre Solar LLC has been operational for a few weeks, MRES is just beginning the learning phase of its demonstration. “We are hoping to learn more about interconnecting with the local distribution system, and the array’s effect on the community’s power quality and reliability,” Livingston said. “We will be watching to see how much electricity it produces and at what time of day and how that relates to peak demand. Once we have that information, it may lead to more solar installations.”

Palmer pointed out that there is room at the Pierre Regional Airport for the solar array to expand. He likes the idea of utility-scale and community solar as a way of giving customers more clean energy. “From the utility standpoint, it is easier to integrate and safer for our workers,” Palmer acknowledged. “The economy of scale also makes it more cost effective for the consumers.”

For Peters, the lessons so far are holistic rather than technical. “Each project is different, so you will learn something new with each one,” he said. “The planning process can always improve.”

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

UGP workshop highlights compressed air efficiency

Western’s Upper Great Plains regional office is teaming up with Missouri River Energy Services Redirecting to a non-government site to present a workshop on managing compressed air systems.

The one-day workshop is scheduled for three different dates and locations for participants’ convenience:

  • Nov. 13 in Sioux Center, Iowa
  • Nov. 14 in Watertown, S.D.
  • Nov. 15 in Moorhead, Minn.

Sometimes called the “fourth utility” in manufacturing, compressed air offers several opportunities for significant energy savings, lower operating costs and a minimized impact on the environment through a smaller carbon footprint. Presentations will focus on:

  • Measuring, tracking and controlling system operating costs
  • Choosing the right system for your needs
  • Reducing demand
  • Maximizing efficiency in operation

Hank van Ormer of Air Power USA Redirecting to a non-government site will present the workshop.  Van Ormer is one of the country’s leading experts in compressed air systems and brings over 30 years of experience to the workshop.

Plant and energy engineers, plant operators and maintenance personnel and building owners and managers should register now to attend this unique workshop and begin lowering their compressed air costs. The registration fee is $109 per person, which includes continental breakfast, lunch, breaks, the workshop, and a comprehensive compressed air manual.