Customer service, community support hand in hand for NMPP Energy

NMPP Energy, based in Lincoln, Nebraska, is a member-driven coalition of four organizations serving nearly 200 member communities in six Midwest and Rocky Mountain states.
NMPP Energy, based in Lincoln, Nebraska, is a member-driven coalition of four organizations serving nearly 200 member communities in six Midwest and Rocky Mountain states. (Photo by NMPP Energy)

The small towns of Nebraska boast a surprising number of large commercial and industrial customers, drawn in no small part by some of the lowest electricity rates in the country. Ensuring the economic vitality of these businesses—and their communities—is a duty that NMPP Energy You are leaving WAPA.gov. and its member organizations take very seriously. “If the businesses are healthy, then the utilities are healthy and we all win,” said Bob Meade, former member services representative for Nebraska Municipal Power Pool and Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska.

Meade, who retired in March, has a long history of working with municipal utilities in Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming to help large C&I customers keep their operating costs down. Low rates notwithstanding, Meade’s first contact with a business usually comes when one complains to the local municipal utility about high bills. “Either that, or they have an infrastructure request,” he said. “They want to upgrade their heating and cooling systems or outdated lighting.”

Meade frequently used the opportunity to do an energy audit on the facility. Businesses need the audit to apply for the Rural Energy for America Program from the Department of Agriculture to fund energy efficiency upgrades.

REAP grants provide up to 25 percent of total eligible project costs for improvements such as HVAC, lighting, refrigeration units and insulation. “Those are the most popular improvements for grocery and convenience stores in particular,” observed Meade. “Those upgrades can reduce a store’s energy charges by as much as 60 or 70 percent. The savings pay for the improvements, and in six or seven years the business sees that money go back into the bottom line.”

Bigger they are, more they save
Large—as in multi-national—companies have even more to gain from efficiency upgrades. Becton Dickinson Inc., You are leaving WAPA.gov. in Meade’s hometown of Holdrege, Nebraska, manufactures medical supplies such as insulin syringes to send all over the world. “Because they use robotics, the voltage and current levels have to be almost perfect,” said Meade. “Otherwise, they lose product.”

All products must be sterilized in an underground chamber, too, so a reliable, stable power supply is critical to operations. These circumstances make Becton Dickinson a good candidate for battery storage. NPPD is working with the company to evaluate the benefits and savings of installing a storage system.

Another, better known, large C&I customer is Frito-Lay You are leaving WAPA.gov. in the town of Cozad. You are leaving WAPA.gov. The snack food maker has a significant presence throughout the state due to excellent rail service and, of course, proximity to crops used as ingredients.

Meade recalled performing a detailed infrared inspection of an electrical room at the plant a few years ago, using one of WAPA’s IR cameras. “We identified more than 85 potential outages that could have caused downtime,” he noted. “That proactive inspection saved them a huge amount of lost work and product. It also convinced them to get their own camera and perform regular inspections.”

Saving electricity saves jobs
Sometimes, good C&I customer service can help to retain jobs when a business changes hands. When Bass Pro Shop took over Cabela’s sporting goods stores in Nebraska, the city of Sidney expected to lose hundreds of jobs. However, Bass Pro Shop learned that Cabela’s had a much more sophisticated data collection program, so the company decided to relocate its data operations to the Cabela’s campus.

That plan hit a snag when Bass Pro Shop found low voltage in the selected building, and an engineering report failed to determine the cause. At the request of the Sidney public services director, Meade installed a power analyzer—again from WAPA—on the city’s transformer. The data the analyzer collects will help to correct the problem, and Bass Pro Shop may be able to offset some of Cabela’s layoffs with jobs in the data center.

Tools to build cooperation
Diagnostic tools, borrowed from WAPA, were critical in helping NMPP utilities to resolve electricity issues for both Frito-Lays and Bass Pro Shop. “IR cameras and power analyzers are great for dealing with key accounts,” Meade pointed out. “You are able to walk in and do something proactive for your customers instead of waiting to react to their problems.”

What is even better, he added, is when a member utility or customer decides to buy the tool themselves. Prices for diagnostic technologies keep coming down, and once a customer sees how much they can save doing preventative maintenance, the case is made.

But first, you have to show them, said Meade. “We have a slogan at NMPP Energy, ‘Working together works,’ and it’s true,” he declared. “It works when we get our member utilities to work with their customers and it works when NMPP works with WAPA.”

Richard Eymann is stepping into Bob Meade’s shoes at the end of March to continue NMPP Energy’s tradition of outstanding member services. With 40 years of electrical and maintenance experience, Eymann will be providing the same high level of support and training NMPP Energy communities have come to expect. Members can contact Eymann at 402-474-4759.

NMPP helps members with net-metering service, resource book

If integrating distributed generation is challenging for large utilities, imagine the difficulties faced by rural and small municipal utilities. With 200 member communities located in six western states, Nebraska Municipal Power Pool You are leaving WAPA.gov. (NMPP) doesn’t have to use imagination to identify the needs of its members.

Distributed generation is becoming increasingly popular even in rural communities. NMPP has developed aresource guidebook to help prepare its members to deal with the challenges of interconnection.
Distributed generation is becoming increasingly popular even in rural communities. NMPP has developed a resource guidebook to help prepare its members to deal with the challenges of interconnection.

NMPP is the utility services organization of NMPP Energy, the trade name for a coalition of four organizations based in Nebraska that provide municipal utilities with wholesale electricity, wholesale and retail natural gas and energy-related services. Some of its members serve as few as 200 customers with minimal staff who wear many hats, said NMPP Energy Communications Specialist Kevin Wickham. “We saw the need to help our members with interconnection coming several years ago when some of the states we serve passed net-metering laws,” he recalled.

Building new services
NMPP launched a net-metering service in 2010 that 22 member utilities have used to date. That number is likely to increase as the cost of installing individual solar arrays drops and utilities install community solar projects.

The net-metering program offers members a choice of three options, each for a cost-based, one-time fee. Members may choose from assistance in developing their own policy guideline and procedures, review of customer generation application for interconnection or avoided cost rate development for payment for energy delivered to the utility.

As it developed its net metering service, NMPP was also working on a resource guidebook, Recommended Policy and Guidelines for Interconnection of Customer-Owned Generation Including Net Metering. “The guidebook was six years in the making,” said Wickham. “Initially, we were going to offer it as one of the services available under the program.”

Something everyone needs
In 2015, NMPP and its wholesale power supply organization Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska You are leaving WAPA.gov. (MEAN) partnered to provide the guidebook to all of MEAN’s 54 long-term total requirements power participants. “Distributed generation and customer self-generation has really taken off and we realized that there was a greater need for the information,” Wickham explained.

The guidebook contains policy guidance, sample agreements, industry terms and definitions and case studies from the American Public Power Association. You are leaving WAPA.gov. Members will also find net-metering statutes from the states NMPP and MEAN serve (Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas). That was one of the bigger challenges in putting together the guidebook, Wickham acknowledged. “Each city council and each utility designs and administers its own policies and procedures around net metering,” he said. “We had to make sure the guidebook was going to be useful to all our customers.”

Input from several regional utilities and trade associations helped NMPP compile a comprehensive resource. Otherwise, the net-metering guidebook was a product of expertise within the organization. “The guidebook wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperation from those utilities, as well as the American Public Power Association,” said Tim Sutherland, MEAN director of wholesale electric operations.

Prepared for future
With an estimated 900 kilowatts of solar power on MEAN’s system, distributed generation has arrived, noted Wickham. “Customers have high expectations when it comes to utility customer service. We  stress to our members to be prepared, starting with things like having an interconnection agreement in place before a customer walks in the door,” he said.

MEAN member utilities, especially the small ones, are finding the resource useful in working out their renewable interconnection policies. “The creation of the net-metering guidebook was the result of being responsive to MEAN’s power participants’ needs,” said Sutherland. “It is just an example of seeing a need and trying to assist our member-owners.”

Utilities can expect to be confronting the challenge of distributed generation and other changes in the electric industry well into the future, Sutherland noted. NMPP and MEAN will continue to look for services, programs and tools to help their member-owners provide consumers with reliable, affordable and sustainable power, he added.

Aspen reaches 100-percent renewables goal

A decade of striving to build a clean energy portfolio culminated in success for Aspen, Colorado, You are leaving Western's site. when the city recently announced that its municipal electric utility now receives all of its power from renewable sources.

A contract the city signed in late August with its power wholesaler Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska You are leaving Western's site. (MEAN) replaces coal power—about 20 percent of Aspen’s electricity supply—with wind energy. The MEAN purchase, which put Aspen over the finish line, will initially add less than $2 per month to the average residential utility bill.

Aspen Utilities and Environmental Initiatives Director David Hornbacher praised MEAN, noting, “If it weren’t for MEAN we couldn’t be in this position. The members (of MEAN) are valued and proactive – this is a win-win for both organizations.”

Mixing it up
The City of Aspen Utilities You are leaving Western's site. energy portfolio consists of about 53 percent wind power and 46 percent hydroelectricity, with small amounts of solar and landfill gas. The wind comes through MEAN from wind farms in the Nebraska cities of Kimball, Ainsworth, Bloomfield, Petersburg and Crofton Bluffs, and one in Wessington Springs, South Dakota. In addition to an allotment from Western, generators on Ruedi Reservoir, Maroon Creek and Ridgway Reservoir make up the hydropower portion.

The Ruedi Dam and Reservoir, part of a multipurpose, trans-mountain water diversion project, provides about one-third of Aspen's power requirements. (Photo courtesy of City of Aspen Utilities)
The Ruedi Dam and Reservoir, part of a multipurpose, trans-mountain water diversion project, provides about one-third of Aspen’s power requirements. (Photo courtesy of City of Aspen Utilities)

“The challenge is to secure the most effective mix of renewables to meet the customer load reliably,” Hornbacher explained. “Each community’s energy use is unique, and each renewable energy source has its own personality.”

Getting the right mix means more than just resources, Hornbacher added. “The key is projects, conservation and efficiency and partners,” he said. “We are lucky to have such willing and supportive partners in MEAN, NREL You are leaving Western's site. [National Renewable Energy Laboratory] and Western.”

NREL worked with Aspen, MEAN and other agencies to define renewable energy, determine what projects would best fit with Aspen’s load and evaluate the utility’s conservation and efficiency measures. Those tools include a renewable energy mitigation program, green building code, tiered rate structure and energy performance contracting. “If you aren’t working with customers and managing your load, you could wind up using more energy,” said Hornbacher.

Community driven
Customer support for a local renewable energy supply dates back to the 1980s when the Aspen city council decided to build the plants at Ruedi Reservoir and Maroon Creek. The community formalized the plan to go 100-percent renewable 10 years ago. “Aspen residents have always had very strong environmental values,” said Hornbacher. “It helps to live in a town where the civic leadership is representative of the community.”

Built in 1980, the Maroon Creek hydroelectric project was one of Aspen's first foray's into local renewable energy development. (Photo by City of Aspen Utilities)
Built in the 1980s, the Maroon Creek hydroelectric project was one of Aspen’s first foray’s into local renewable energy development. (Photo by City of Aspen Utilities)

Smaller municipalities so far have a clear edge on large metropolitan areas in “going green.” The mountain resort town of 7,000 joins Burlington, Vermont, You are leaving Western's site. (pop. 45,000) and Greensburg, Kansas, You are leaving Western's site. (pop. 800) in becoming the first cities in the nation to reach the all-renewable energy goal. Georgetown, Texas, You are leaving Western's site. (pop. 47,000) plans to follow these leaders next year with a 25-year contract to buy 150 megawatts (MW) of clean power from new SunEdison You are leaving Western's site. solar plants.

Hornbacher noted that being small is not necessarily an advantage, although a smaller load opens up the possibility of fitting smaller projects into the portfolio. “It is important to note that each of these communities took a different course to reach their goal. You have to look carefully at your own situation,” he cautioned. “One important takeaway is that renewable energy does not automatically translate to higher rates. Aspen’s residential rates are still among the lowest in the state.”

Going above, beyond
Aspen’s vision does not stop at the city limits, however. Hornbacher hopes the city’s accomplishment will spark a dialogue on the state level and challenge other municipalities to engage with their energy supply.

The media beyond Colorado have taken notice as well. Television stations from California, Utah and China have interviewed the utility to find out how a small town in Colorado achieved the big goal of shifting its energy supply to renewable resources. “We’ve demonstrated that it is possible,” Hornbacher said. “Realistically, we hope we can inspire others to achieve these higher goals.”

That is the kind of attention Western likes to see its customers receive. We congratulate the city of Aspen on setting their sights high, sticking to their plan and creating a clean, reliable energy future.

Small town reduces big demand charges through self-generation

Development of a renewable energy project is governed by circumstances specific to that site, and the reasons for building the generation are often just as unique. For the little town of Neligh You are leaving WAPA.gov. (pop. 1,600) in northeastern Nebraska, renewable energy offered a creative path to avoiding high peak demand charges.

A front south view of the Neligh Electric Generation Plant.
A front south view of the Neligh Electric Generation Plant. (Photo by Roxanne McNally)

The city installed a 6.5 megawatt bio-diesel electric generation plant—one of a kind in the state—in 2012. The generation capacity allows Neligh to purchase economical electricity from outside entities while using the bio-diesel generators for peak electric demand and emergencies. Self-generation saves the city a wholesale electricity supplier demand charge.

“The bio-diesel generation has been a great savings for our community, and a safety net for Neligh and the surrounding communities,” commented former Mayor Jeri Anderson, who left office at the end of 2014. “Neligh can generate to help the capacity loads for other communities in emergency situations, and it is a great backup energy resource for us.”

Searching for solutions
For large electricity customers, demand charges—that fee your power provider adds to your bill for your highest energy use—can be notoriously tricky to control. Efficiency reduces the overall amount of energy a facility or community uses. However, an unexpected event like a large manufacturing order or extreme weather can cause the need for electricity to spike, and that need must be met. For years, Neligh bought expensive wholesale power to meet peak demand and emergencies, resulting in monthly supplier demand charges of around $50,000.

Besides reducing demand charges, the city also wanted to purchase low-cost “economy energy” from the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska You are leaving WAPA.gov. (MEAN). Economy energy is the standby reserves that large generators always have on hand to meet sudden demand. To offset the cost of producing this energy, the generators sell it to various buyers on an hourly or day-by-day basis. Under the state Power Review Board You are leaving WAPA.gov. (PRB) rules, a city may buy economy energy if it owns generation capable of producing 115 percent of its demand. Clearly, it was not difficult for Neligh to make a business case for building its own power plant.

Answer is green
The problem with that solution was that a private investor cannot own a generator in the all-public power state of Nebraska. Also, the PRB must approve all new generation, which places the burden on cities and villages to prove a verifiable need for additional generation. That is a difficult hurdle to clear in a state that has plenty of generation capacity.

A potential loop-hole opened several years ago, when a hog farmer installed a methane digester generator and petitioned the PRB to sell his excess power to Nebraska Public Power District You are leaving WAPA.gov. . The board determined that since this energy was renewable—“green”—it was regulated by FERC, so the PRB had no authority to rule either way on the sale. “When I learned of the decision, I began researching green energy systems that Neligh could install,” said City Attorney Jim McNally.

A bio-diesel generator of less than 40 megawatts met the PRB’s criteria, and Neligh was issued a permit to build. Mayor Joe Hartz attributed the outcome to a strong relationship with NPPD and to cooperation between Neligh’s municipal utility, NPPD and MEAN. “That allowed us to provide the best of all worlds for our customers,” he said.

Logistically, economically feasible
The installation itself was a straightforward project, since the generators are conventional diesel equipment. It is the fuel—100-percent soy oil in Neligh, rather than fossil fuel—that qualifies the project as renewable. Only the rubber hoses had to be changed out on the four used Caterpillar generator sets. Because the fuel tends to jell when cold, the plant is housed in a heated building.

Generation Supervisor Josh Capler syncs generator #3 into the Neligh Electric system to bring the motor online.
Generation Supervisor Josh Capler syncs generator #3 into the Neligh Electric system to bring the motor online. (Photo by Roxanne McNally)

The city paid a little more than $3 million for the generators and some lightly used controls, financing the purchase on a 15-year bond. The power plant now qualifies Neligh to purchase economy energy from MEAN, but more importantly, having its own power supply has saved the city from paying demand charges. “In place of the $50,000-per-month demand charge, we have a monthly bond payment of about $17,000 for the equipment,” McNally explained. “The city nets around $30,000.00 a month in savings, or $300,000 annually after the bond payment. That is significant for a city of 1,600.”

The attorney added that Neligh’s new access to the economy energy market is what makes the renewable aspect of the project economically viable. “Wholesale power in Nebraska is less expensive than self-generation with either diesel or biodiesel,” McNally acknowledged.

Potential environmental regulations could change the equation, but McNally believes the bio-diesel generators will continue to be a net winner for the city budget. The little city of Neligh should not have any problems handling whatever the future holds. Volatile prices and new rules are no match for ingenuity and savvy planning.