Irrigation workshop keeps ag customers informed, prepared

Having information available about future operating costs, supplies and regulations help business owners make sound decisions for the coming months and years. Utilities that provide such critical information form stronger relationships with their customers, which is why High West EnergyYou are leaving Western's site. hosted an irrigation workshop on Jan. 27 at its Pine Bluff, Wyoming, headquarters.

High West Energy hosts a workshop for agriculture customers every couple of years to keep the lines of communication open with their large customers. (Photo by High West Energy)
High West Energy hosts a workshop for agriculture customers every couple of years to keep the lines of communication open with their large customers. (Photo by High West Energy)

Irrigators are among the electric cooperative’s biggest consumers and High West considers it good practice to acknowledge that customer segment and keep the lines of communication open. “We like to get irrigators together every couple of years to share new technology developments and discuss changes on the horizon to help them prepare accordingly,” said High West Public Relations and Marketing Manager Lorrell Walter.

Around 25 attendees—primarily small growers but with a significant number of agribusiness producers—turned out for a look into the crystal ball. “They got a lot of tough news this year,” acknowledged Walter, “but they appreciate knowing ahead of time, so they can plan for it.”

The tough news included rate increases anticipated for the next three years, water restrictions affecting both Wyoming and Nebraska and a low futures market. “Basically, the worst possible combination,” said High West Energy Management Advisor Joy Manning, who helped organize the workshop.

Facing, tackling challenges
Some presentations clarified the situation the growers faced, while others explored assistance available to help cope with it. Speakers from the South Platte Natural Resources DistrictYou are leaving Western's site. and Wyoming State Engineer’s OfficeYou are leaving Western's site. focused on drought conditions and new state well water regulations. The outlook for grain markets in 2016 was the topic of a presentation by a representative from Platte Valley Bank.

The workshop covered not only challenges, but solutions too. Attendees learned about strategies for dealing with climate variability and integrating photovoltaics with irrigation equipment from the University of Wyoming School of EngineeringYou are leaving Western's site. and Extension. The Department of Agriculture Rural Energy for America Program discussed loans and grants it offers for renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements.

Utilities join conversation
Because water and energy use are intertwined, wholesale power providers had a place on the agenda, too. Tri-State Generation and Transmission AssociationYou are leaving Western's site. was on hand to update attendees on the G&T’s efforts to comply with the Clean Power Program and other activities. Tri-State Relationship Manager Gary Myers gave an overview of the 2016 Energy Efficiency Products Program.

Western Energy Services Representative Annette Meredith and Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffmann gave a short presentation on what Western is doing to support High West and its other customers. Although Western works with utilities rather than end-users, Energy Services can play a role in consumer education, noted Meredith. “Helping our customers’ customers to understand where some of their power comes from, and how electricity and water are so closely linked in the West, can help bolster efficiency programs,” she explained.

The workshop appeared to achieve that goal, observed Manning, in spite of sobering news. “The feedback was very positive,” she said. “They particularly appreciated that the information didn’t just touch on one aspect of irrigation.”

Partnering to reach customers
Getting input from many different sources is the secret to a good workshop, Walter said. “If I was going to give other utilities one piece of advice on putting together a workshop, I would tell them, ‘Don’t try to do it on your own,’” she said. “Even though I have an agricultural background, I couldn’t keep up with the hot topics.”

As the issues get more complex, pre-event research becomes more important. High West board members are a source of topics based on the concerns they hear from customers. Tri-State, High West’s wholesale provider, has helped organize past workshops. And if you find a good speaker, Walter advises, “Invite them back! Get that information out there.”

Meredith, who joined Energy Services a little over a year ago, also pitched in this time. “She really helped pull things together,” Manning added.

“Partnerships among several stakeholders are key for successful energy efficiency efforts,” said Meredith.

If your utility would like assistance in hosting a workshop for your members or customers, contact your Energy Services Representative or the Energy Services manager.

High West Energy hears customers, launches assessment program

Listening is what sets electric cooperatives and municipal utilities apart from their investor-owned counterparts, along with the commitment to take action on what they hear. So when members told High West Energy, You are leaving Western's site. they needed help to reduce their energy bills, the southern Wyoming-based co-op gave them what they wanted.

Pick and choose
High West Energy Home Wise programThe four-tier Home Wise program lets members choose from different levels of energy feedback, depending on their needs. “We wanted them to have options,” said Energy Management Advisor Joy Manning.

At the free Bronze level, homeowners can do their own assessment with the Touchstone Home Energy Saver software.You are leaving Western's site. They plug energy-use data into an online portal, and get solutions to reduce consumption ranked by payback time. The Silver level, also free, includes a brief walk-through assessment and a report that shows how the occupants’ energy-use decisions affect their electric bill.

At the Gold level, members receive a one-to-two-hour energy assessment for $250, half of which is rebated if the member completes a suggested upgrade. Manning inspects the premises and provides a report that covers typical operating costs of the appliances, as well as the results of an infrared (IR) camera inspection and blower door test.

Members who opt for the Platinum level pay $500 for a comprehensive, attic-to-basement assessment with IR camera, blower door and duct blaster. “And a new best friend,” joked Manning, referring to the length of time it takes to thoroughly inspect a property. She works with the homeowner to develop an action plan to reduce energy use, and High West reimburses 50 percent of the assessment cost for completing a recommended project.

Laying groundwork
High West spent a year putting the pieces of Home Wise in place before unveiling the program. While assembling the tools for an assessment—IR camera, blower door and duct blaster—Manning worked on building her own skill set. Last February, she attended an energy audit workshop hosted by TriState Generation and Transmission Association,You are leaving Western's site. High West’s power wholesaler. The energy management advisor is also pursuing her energy manager certification.

The board of directors gave the project the green light in August, said Manning, but it did not require a hard sell. “Taking members’ needs into account is a central co-op principle,” she explained. “So is wise management of our energy resources.”

The preparation came together in a “soft launch” of Home Wise in November. Members received a bill stuffer announcing the availability of home assessments. An article about the program also appeared in High West’s November newsletter.

Public Relations and Marketing Manager Lorrell Walter explained that they wanted time to gauge member interest and see what kind of resources the program needed. “Joy is a one-woman show, and she manages a lot of different programs,” Walter said. “We would rather build up Home Wise slowly to make sure it has the resources it needs to deliver value to our members.”

Time to engage
In the meantime, Manning has been reaching out to members who call about high bills. “If they are concerned about their energy use, I want to touch base and let them know what the data is telling me,” she said.

The data from High West’s smart meter system reveals a lot, as it turns out. “We can pinpoint energy use down to the hour,” explained Manning. “The data helped me find a well pump that was going bad, and we’ve learned that space heaters take a lot of energy. We have this tremendous opportunity to educate people about their energy use habits if we can just spend a little time talking to them.”

Manning expects to have more opportunities to talk to members after the holidays as winter sets in and people pay more attention to their utility bills. That includes commercial as well as residential and agricultural members, she added. “The program is available to businesses, too, but that is a smaller member segment, so we haven’t really pushed that angle.”

Walter and Manning are both looking forward to engaging members through Home Wise and watching the program grow. “Home energy assessments aren’t new, but they are new to High West,” Manning acknowledged. “The members want it and it is time for us to get started.”