Public Power Communities: Technology for Business Success

From powering up huge data centers to providing telecom and water services, and helping customers become energy-efficient through the latest technologies, public power companies re-invest in the communities they serve.

Originally published in Area Development

People have been plugging lights and appliances into electric power for well over a century, and the average user probably doesn’t give a lot of thought to the transmission system that delivers power to the wall outlet. Behind the scenes, though, the technology supporting the needs of power customers is increasingly advanced, and the nation’s public power utilities are among those leading the way. These utilities are delivering power that’s more reliable than ever, along with a growing menu of services designed to help commercial and residential power customers manage their usage and control their costs. The menu often goes well beyond electricity itself.

Consider the critical nature of data to business operations and everyday lives. It’s not a stretch to say that many aspects of our modern way of life rely on the ability to store and manipulate data in data centers, which rely on vast supplies of incredibly reliable energy.

In the Phoenix area, public power provider Salt River Project is energizing innovation with deployment of its SRP DataStation™, a modular data center concept that provides highly reliable power located closer to the bulk transmission system.

“This first-of-its-kind deployment works to address the growing need of power in a sustainable way,” says Caryn Gose, senior project manager for economic development. The concept “minimizes the construction of transmission lines and supports economic development in the community.”

Salt River Project’s initiative facilitates the data center growth that’s inevitable these days, while increasing reliability, reducing costs, and minimizing the need for extensive overhead power lines running through commercial and residential territories. It’s just one of many examples across the country of the technologies and trends that are reshaping the relationship between utility and customer.

Data centers also are among the big beneficiaries of Nebraska Public Power District’s large-customer economic development incentive electric rate, which offers energy at a discounted price for a fixed period of time. “This rate is ideally suited for data center loads, especially large enterprise operations,” observes Mary Plettner, economic development manager with NPPD.

Across the country in North Carolina, Greenville Utilities Commission (GUC) is one of many public power utilities calling on technology to help customers reduce their costs, not just by cutting consumption but by more intelligently managing their usage and, when appropriate, adding in power generated on site. The latest technology gives large customers a real-time window into their power usage, as well as the status of the system providing that power.

“They are able to monitor not only their load but ours,” says Tony Cannon, general manager and CEO of Greenville Utilities Commission. A few dozen customers have electricity cogeneration capabilities, and with benefit of the load data they can fire up during high-demand times when costs could be higher. The number of business customers with cogeneration technologies is small but growing, and the load monitoring abilities helped that cadre of happy customers collectively save $1.5 million last year.

More Than Electricity
 The fact that Greenville Utilities provides not only electricity but also natural gas, water, and wastewater services helps it offer a holistic solution to business needs. In the case of cogeneration, the utility can provide the natural gas used to fire the generator. “We’re working with a large manufacturer to install peak generation,” Cannon says, adding that it’s a six-megawatt project. “We’re able to install a natural gas peak generator to allow price breaks.”

It’s not uncommon for public power utilities to provide more than just electricity. For example, Salt River Project also diversifies its offerings with telecommunications services, Gose says. “SRP Telecom provides dark fiber services to commercial service providers in the Phoenix metropolitan market.”

And Tom F. Gray, economic development consultant for Grand River Dam Authority in northeast Oklahoma, provides another example: “GRDA’s largest customer, Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, has made the commitment to deliver high-speed fiber-optic service to every electric meter in its service delivery area,” he says. “Connectivity is critical to businesses located in rural areas to serve a broad range of customer needs on a global basis.”

And it’s not just a matter of connecting rural business customers to resources and clients globally. Connectivity is also a vital part of helping businesses attract the talent they need to succeed, Gray points out — particularly the millennials who are vital to the workforce requirements of a lot of companies. “The quality of life offered to business owners and employees in a rural setting enables them to experience the millennials’ optimum satisfaction with ‘live, work and play.’”

Saving Energy
 “We’re the only company in our area that’s spending money to keep people from buying our product,” says Cannon of GUC. He’s referring to the efforts to help customers achieve greater energy efficiency. “We have staff dedicated to working with our customers on energy efficiency. It is their full-time job to help customers save money.”

There are examples all over the country, including in Arizona. “Salt River Project offers demand management and energy-efficiency programs to help our commercial and industrial customers manage their energy usage and reduce costs,” says Gose. “The programs include a wide range of new and proven energy-saving technologies — such as LED lighting and high-efficiency HVAC systems and controls — to enhance the operation of the customers’ facilities.”

Customers are the obvious beneficiaries, because saving energy saves money. But the benefits are broader, says Gray at Grand River Dam Authority. “Energy-efficiency programs and demand management are bigger than just the utility, and when customer-owners can grasp the concept and put it into practice, they can have positive impacts on the system that last for many years to come. Such programs can delay the need to build more generation, and, thus, help keep rates lower.”

Favorite Color is Green
 Reducing electricity consumption can be good for the planet, too, so energy efficiency is a significant part of the environmentally friendly initiatives that an increasing number of customers are demanding. But that’s just one aspect of the interest in green power.

“Based upon customer input relating to efforts at minimizing their company’s carbon footprint, Nebraska Public Power District has developed a green power product that allows them to achieve their desired environmental goals from renewable and sustainable generation resources,” says Plettner. “NPPD supports energy research with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences Research to conduct research on renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, and energy conservation to expand economic opportunities.”

NPPD, she says, is one of the Midwest’s leaders when it comes to generation from non-carbon-emitting resources, at 42 percent. “In the near future, NPPD will add hydrogen to that list of carbon-free generation resources through its partnership with Monolith Materials, a cutting-edge manufacturer of carbon black.”

The company uses natural gas in its production of carbon black, and one of the byproducts of the process is hydrogen, Plettner explains. NPPD will use the hydrogen as a new alternative clean-energy source: “NPPD plans to replace an existing coal-fired boiler at its Sheldon Station plant in Hallam with one that uses clean-burning hydrogen fuel.” Good for the planet, yes…and also good for the economy, because creation of 600 jobs is also part of the equation.

It wasn’t that long ago that green power was an interesting option provided by just a few forward-thinkers, but these days it’s on radar screens across the public power community. “From a generation perspective, Salt River Project works with our business customers to meet their corporate goals in terms of serving the facility with green energy,” says Gose. “SRP offers cost-effective options to our customers that include leveraging output from our community solar operations if customers desire.”

As its name suggests, Grand River Dam Authority has excellent access to carbon-free hydroelectric power, through facilities at three dams. But it also draws power from five wind farms and a gas-powered generating facility, according to Gray. In the works is a new combined-cycle gas generation plant at the Grand River Energy Center. Gray says it’s “the latest, most efficient design, and the first of its kind to be built in the Western Hemisphere.” Soon after it comes online in 2017, a coal-fired plant will be decommissioned.

“We have built more than 28 megawatts of certified green power, which means it meets strict environmental and consumer standards,” says Lonnie Carter, president and CEO of Santee Cooper in South Carolina. “Residential and commercial customers can voluntarily purchase green power, and all of that revenue is put back into a fund that Santee Cooper uses to develop new renewable energy resources in South Carolina.”

The program also has provided solar arrays to nearly 30 middle schools, Carter says, “with real-time and historical performance monitoring, along with a renewable energy curriculum that meets state science standards, to help prepare the next generation of energy professionals and consumers.”

Communities — and their utilities — that make a strong commitment to green power can find themselves all the more attractive to companies that share such a commitment. That was the case in the Mid-America Industrial Park east of Tulsa, says Gray of GRDA. A large technology company with a strong corporate commitment to the environment announced a million-square-foot expansion there. The availability of hydro and wind power was one of the selling points in making that expansion a reality, Gray explains.

Customer-Friendly Business Model
 One might ask what motivates public power companies to offer services and technologies that save businesses money, improve quality of life to facilitate more successful recruitment, and even save the planet. Perhaps the best answer is to observe what does not motivate them…the profit motive.

Public power utilities are just that — public, owned and operated by municipalities or other not-for-profit entities. “These electric utilities operate at cost of service, and any revenues above that point are utilized for plant improvements, transmission facilities, and overall system reliability and integrity,” says Plettner, adding that her state of Nebraska is the only state where every home and business gets electric service from a publicly owned utility.

“We don’t pay dividends to shareholders,” agrees Cannon at Greenville Utilities Commission. “We reinvest into the utility and technology.”

“Operating costs are minimized because their debt, cost of money, and inventory are typically low; their service region is constrained; and [most] of their annual operating budget is committed to strengthening and maintaining their system rather than growing regionally,” adds Bob DeWitt, director of business development and energy efficiency for American Municipal Power Inc. “This, in turn, makes the system reliable from both an operations and response perspective,” he says.

Without the need to deliver a profit to shareholders, public power utilities can keep rates lower than average. But that’s really only part of the benefit. “Local accountability has translated over the decades into customer satisfaction rates well above the national average, as well as excellent reliability throughout our transmission, distribution, and generation systems,” says Carter of Santee Cooper. “Our responsibility is to the people we serve, and they are our friends and neighbors. Local management means we can also be nimble in our ability to anticipate the needs of business customers, and provide solutions that help them be successful.”

This connection to the well-being of the local community — and its people and businesses — makes public power utilities natural allies in the work of economic development, says DeWitt. “Once a business decides to make an expansion or location move, time is money,” he explains. “Professional site location consultants know this, and to be successful they must work quickly to identify and recommend to their clients sites that offer the least risk and lowest cost. Municipalities that own and control their own electric systems know this as well, and in response have cut the red tape and developed community-owned, shovel-ready sites with marginally excess water, sewer, and electric utility capacity. In many cases fiber is in place as well.”

Making economic development happen is also a primary objective for ElectriCities, which serves about a million energy users across North Carolina and nearby states as a not-for-profit government service organization representing municipalities and universities that have their own electric distribution systems. “One of ElectriCities’ roles is to represent member communities to expanding and relocating companies,” says Brenda Daniels, manager of economic development. “We maintain comprehensive databases for all public power municipalities in North Carolina. Prospects can order detailed reports on dozens of sites, from mountains to coast.”

ElectriCities will promptly provide profiles of locations that match the requesting company’s specifications. “It’s no coincidence that some of the state’s most dynamic growth has occurred in our communities. Any power-intensive industry is going to find significant advantages here. ElectriCities remains a partner through the entire process, facilitating site visits and contact with local, county, and state officials.”

Such involvement can be key to making good things happen, whether the project is small or huge, such as the $500 million, 2,000-job Volvo plant that South Carolina landed. Santee Cooper was part of the team that made that win a reality, Carter says. “Santee Cooper was able to quickly secure the property for the plant with our loans and grant programs, and through Edisto Electric Cooperative, which will serve the plant site, Volvo is using our discounted incentive rate for large industry,” Carter says.

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