On May 10-12, I went to Sioux Falls, SD, to speak at the 51st Annual Meeting of Missouri River Energy Services, one of the American Public Power Association’s most active Joint Action Agency members. MRES serves 60 public power distribution utilities in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa. I have always been impressed with the dedication of the MRES utilities to their communities when I visit, and this time was no exception. The MRES staff planned an excellent program, and I learned as much as I shared.
MRES kicked off the meeting with an hour-long session with Peter Fox-Penner, an electric industry guru and now a professor at Boston University. His book, Smart Power, really foresaw the changes our industry is now going through — I was so impressed with it that I had asked him to come to APPA’s October 2014 Board meeting as part of our strategic planning kick-off. MRES even bought all the attendees copies of Peter’s book. One of Peter’s primary messages — public power utilities are well-positioned to be the trusted energy service providers in their communities. All I can say to that is “amen.”
I also heard a great presentation by Jeff Peters of MRES and Bill Schwandt, general manager of Moorhead Public Service, about community solar. Jeff provided a great overview of how solar PV systems work, and Bill talked about Moorhead’s “Capture the Sun” community solar program. Moorhead sited its community solar garden between its two “Capture the Wind” wind turbines. The photo of Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar wearing their Moorhead Public Service “Capture the Sun” baseball caps especially warmed my heart!
We also saw a video updating MRES’s members on the progress at the Red Rock Hydroelectric Project. Watching the video reminded me of what a huge undertaking it is to construct a new hydro project —even one associated with an existing dam. Vast amounts of earth have to be moved and many truckloads of concrete must be poured — and that is before you even get to the powerhouses and turbines. These projects have high up-front costs, but pay off in the form of carbon-free power for an estimated life of 80 years. It takes real foresight to build these projects, which are as much for our children and grandchildren as they are for us. My hat is off to MRES for undertaking this project.
Finally, we heard about MRES’s distribution maintenance program. Jeff Becthold of MRES explained how MRES is now providing lineworker crews for five different Minnesota communities that were having difficulties finding and retaining qualified lineworkers on their own. MRES employs the crews (who live in or near the communities they serve) while the distribution utilities provide their equipment, and pay MRES for the costs of this service. Rob Wolfington, the City Administrator of Benson, MN, and Jennifer Bromeland, City Administrator for Jackson, MN, both spoke to how well the program is working for their communities. As Mr. Wolfington said, “we have peace of mind and a high quality of work.” Given that many small public power systems are having trouble hiring and retaining qualified lineworkers, this shared services model is well worth considering.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not give a shoutout to Harold Schiebout of Sioux Center, Iowa, who is the chairman of MRES’s board of directors. He was honored at the meeting for his 40 years of service on the MRES board. Having known Harold since the mid-1980s, I can personally attest that he has labored mightily in the public power — and public gas — vineyard. While I missed Bernie Sanders by just a few hours (he had a Rally in Sioux Falls right after I left), I was there for Harold’s award, and was very glad to be part it all. Harold, thank you for your service!